Feb 8 2011

So, what do you want from Christianity?

Here’s an interesting question: What do you want from Christianity?

A long time ago I heard someone describing becoming a Christian as an act of “enlightened self-interest,” where we are motivated by what we hope to get out of it rather than a commitment to serve God and others. Looking at the Gospels, it seems that Jesus never turned people away for wanting something from him; in fact, it was those who didn’t want anything from him that he turned away. Even Peter’s great statement of faith, “where else would we go? Only you have the words of life” (John 6:68), speaks of Peter’s need for these words of life. So, this enlightened self-interest does not appear to be a bad thing.

Considering this, plus the fact that Christianity has, at least for many people in the west, become a consumerist endeavor—one in which we pick churches and even religions on what we perceive we need—then the obvious question becomes, “what do you want from Christianity?”

In answering this question, we could go a number of different ways. However, reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, there are two primary responses: a life under the law, with a list of requirements to fulfill, or a life of freedom. Many people, for a number of different psychological and bad theological reasons, choose a life under the law. A relative few, it seems, choose a life of freedom.

Two Gates

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Almost never do you hear this verse taught in the larger context of what Jesus is saying in Matthew chapter 7. He starts off by saying, “Don’t judge others.” Then, he speaks of the Father giving his children good gifts, merely for the asking, and teaches them what we know as the Golden Rule: treat others like you’d like to be treated back “for this sums up the law.” Immediately following verses 13 & 14, Jesus talks about false prophets, and how to recognize them by their fruit.

It seems here that Jesus is trying to teach his disciples a different way from that of the law; we don’t get by working, we get by asking. Good trees naturally produce good fruit. Take the narrow road, not the widely traveled one.

Works, or grace?

I’ve always heard the explanation of the two paths as “choose holiness, not sin,” and yes, there’s something to be said for that, even though this does not seem to be Jesus’ emphasis here. Paul says we were set free not to sin, but to live in freedom, which is not to sin.

But, which gate leads to a life of works-righteousness, and which is the gateway to freedom and grace? Is it possible that we’ve confused our gates?

If Paul’s thinking accurately represents the Gospel as Jesus intended it (which I believe it does), then what leads to destruction is relying on ourselves, and what leads to live is receiving grace as a gift—which seems to follow Jesus’ line of thinking in the prior verses.

The Question

So, the question remains: What really do you want from Christianity, a life of self-reliance and works-righteousness, or a life of freedom that comes from grace?


Feb 4 2011

What it means to be blessed

I grew up in a church who read from the Gospels each week (along with a passage from the Epistles, and the Old Testament). Sermons were sometimes based on the Epistles, but I seem to recall more coming from the Gospels. For one thing, the Gospels were stories, and even children could understand most of them. Secondly, I suspect that a lot of the impact came from the fact that the Gospels contained the words of Jesus, not simply words about Jesus.

I don’t recall any sermons having the message that as Christians, our lives would be a bed of roses. It’s actually hard to come up with this kind of belief if you actually read the Gospels. Jesus actually promises us quite a bit of trouble, when you come right down to it. And, as he lived as one of us for 30-plus years, and ended up being tortured and killed, I think he understood what he was talking about.

One of Jesus’ most famous sermons is the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew chapter 5. In a section known as the beatitudes, or the “blesseds,” Jesus says,

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

While some of the traits Jesus mentions are positive, such as being pure in heart, merciful and being a peacemaker, I don’t believe Jesus is saying that all of these are things to shoot for. Rather, he seems to be pointing out people who were personally suffering, or who were sacrificing their own good for the good of others. He did not meant that it is good to mourn or to be persecuted—in fact, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray to be delivered from evil, which these things certainly are. While the beatitudes are promises of hope and the coming Kingdom, Jesus knew that even though the Kingdom of God was at hand (Matt. 3:2), for the present time there will be suffering.

The Kingdom of God—the rule of God—has been described as “already but not yet.” It is “at hand” or “within reach,” but yet Jesus asks us to pray that the Kingdom of God would come to “Earth as it is in Heaven.” Of course, when I was a child, this was beyond me, but yet I understood that God was in control in spite of suffering—and that at some future point, everything would be set right. Those who mourn would be comforted, and the poor in spirit would inherit Heaven. In other words, the future would more than compensate for the present.

As a parent, I understand this now, as I watched my children fall when learning to ride a bike and take medicine that was hard to swallow. It is a matter of perspective. We need to learn to see beyond the present into the future, trusting that from God’s point of view, it all works out to our good.

At times there is healing and prosperity, and at times there is suffering and mourning. God sent the Comforter because we would need comforting, and he sent Jesus to bring hope and salvation in the midst of it all. Those of us who know God understand this hope.

That’s what it really means to be blessed.

1.       When is the last time you heard a sermon from the Gospels?
2.       How have you experienced the comfort of the Holy Spirit?


Dec 3 2010

Take off the blinders

A New Law

Don’t teach me about politics and Government
Just tell me who to vote for
Don’t teach me about truth and beauty
Just label my music

Don’t teach me how to live like a free man
Just give me a new law

I don’t wanna know if the answers aren’t easy
So just bring it down from the mountain to me

I want a new law
I want a new law
Gimme that new law

Don’t teach me about moderation and liberty
I prefer a shot of grape juice

Don’t teach me about loving my enemies

Don’t teach me how to listen to the Spirit
Just give me a new law

I don’t wanna know if the answers aren’t easy
So just bring it down from the mountain to me

I want a new law
I want a new law
Gimme that new law

What’s the use in trading a law you can never keep
For one you can that cannot get you anything

Do not be afraid
Do not be afraid
Do not be afraid

© Derek Webb Music


Nov 15 2010

Ironic repentance vs. the real deal

There are people in every church I’ve been in who need to be set free.

This is not to say that some of these churches didn’t preach grace. But sometimes, it just takes a while for grace to seep in to where change needs to happen. Grace on the surface is one thing; grace in our innermost being is life-changing.

Much of Christianity teaches that we “miss the mark.” This is true, of course. However, much of Christianity forgets to teach that Jesus has hit the mark for us.  So, rather than hearing that we have succeeded in Christ, we only hear that we have failed and that we need to do more, and try harder. Once this concept is fully rooted in someone’s thinking, it may stay with them for years, in spite of their gaining an intellectual understanding of grace.

I suspect that some people first join these graceless, “miss-the-mark” churches because they already know that they don’t hit the mark, so they fit right in. They are given some guidelines that may help them hit the mark, sometimes, and they are promised that someday they will either make the mark in Heaven, or perhaps that the mark will simply be removed. And, being beat up every week for continually missing the mark helps assuage their guilt.

That’s the only reason I can think of to explain why people actually convert to a works-oriented form of Christianity. This parody of Christianity functions something like a 12-step group: The first step is admitting you are a sinner, and realizing that you will always be a sinner. The best you can hope for is God helping you to sin just a little bit less, or perhaps it’s enough just to know you’re surrounded by people who feel as lousy as you do.

This kind of graceless thinking gets into your core, because in your core you’re already feeling like crap. It simply confirms that what you have believed about yourself is really true. Here’s the irony about converting to a legalistic version of Christianity: In some ways, because you aren’t changing how you feel about things in your core, you don’t really have to repent all that much.

To accept salvation by grace takes real repentance. What you need to repent from is the thinking that your performance actually matters, in a spiritual sense. Yes, you’re a sinner, and if you ever think you can keep God’s law, it will condemn you. Now, get over it.

What you need to repent (turn) to is the truth that Jesus performed on our behalf; he kept the law, and more than that, he conquered death (the consequences of sinning). Think of the law as a video game (only with life or death consequences): Jesus has beaten all of the levels. In essence, the game is over. And not only that, the consequences for losing the game has been removed. You are now free to play the game (just make sure you log on under Jesus’ name).

The truth about repentance

Repentance (in a soteriological sense) has never been about changing your behavior; no behavior-mod program can save you. Repentance is about changing your core beliefs. For most of us, repentance is like peeling an onion; it happens layer by layer. With the discovery of each new layer of self-reliance, more repentance needs to take place. The good news is that it’s all by grace, the great onion-peeler.

So be free—because that’s why we’ve been set free.