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?


Mar 14 2010

The New Judaizers

This morning I was flipping around the AM dial as I drove home from church. It’s kind of a sick practice of mine, wanting to hear what local pastors are preaching.  Often it just irritates me (but I have to point out that I always enjoy the sermons from a certain pastor named Randy).

Today on the way to church I had stopped on a certain station that I was not familiar with, so when I got back in the car this station was still on, and I caught this pastor (I’m assuming – there was no identification of either the speaker or church when it was over) in mid-sentence.

The speaker was going on about the pagan origins of Easter, which is nothing I haven’t heard before, and which I am still not impressed by.  He went on to criticize the early church (Eastern Orthodox), the Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists.  He then went on to say that Yeshua did not have a people; there were hundreds of denominations, but no “one people.”

Now, it began to get interesting.  He explained that the only way for there to be “one people” was for everyone to start following the Torah.  And, just to make sure that I hadn’t misheard him or misinterpreted what he said, he made sure that this was understood; Christianity was a Jewish religion, and following the Jewish Law confirms that we are indeed followers of Yeshua.  This also sets us apart from “the world.”  Indeed.  He rattled off a list of feasts and holy days we should be observing, but failed to mention where to find spotted goats or sheep for sacrifices…

When I got home I did a bit of research, trying to find out more about this guy. I figured he was some sort of Messianic Jew, due to his continued use of Hebrew names, etc.  The station turned out to be an “all Christian” station based here, whose purpose is “to network people, resources, needs, news, events, fellowships and ministries and  businesses in order to combine and multiply our resources, efforts and prayers.”

Or so they say.  Reading further, the website states,

We especially want to welcome those who are still fellowshiping in Christian churches who are seeking a deeper walk with Yahweh, the God of the Bible. Our theme verse is Rev. 12:17 – those who keep the commandments of Yah and the testimony of Yahshua/Jesus.

Alrighty, then.  I should mention that a number of non-Hebrew-oriented churches and ministries have shows on the station, or have placed ads on the site, or are otherwise mentioned somewhere on this site.  (It’s a really bad website design, too… but that’s another issue.)

I wonder, do they realize that this group’s (I still don’t know who they really are) goal is to Judaize Christian churches?  That is, they mean to convert grace-believing Christians into followers of the Torah. Or, at least those seeking “a deeper walk with Yahweh, the God of the Bible” (as opposed to the God of where?).

I wonder if these new Judaizers have ever read Galatians, or any of Paul’s other letters.  Let me quote from Galatians 1:

6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

So what do we say then about these very helpful, well-meaning folks?  What about “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort (Gal 3:3)”?  Or, “All who rely on the Law are under a curse (v 10)?”  Paul challenges us to take a stand on the Gospel, and send false teachers packing down the road to Perdition.  It really bugs me that Christians think they are so holy when they quote, “don’t judge,” but they’ll stand by and watch the Gospel being flushed down the toilet.

You foolish Galatians!

Here’s the bottom line that Paul drew in his letter to the Galatians: If you add anything to Jesus – that is, any laws or traditions or eating kosher – you haven’t just missed the Gospel, you’ve trashed it completely! There is no middle ground, no “tolerance” when it comes to grace.

Now, you can going ahead and do all kinds of good works, because they’re good things to so.  Just don’t think you’re earning grace because of them. You are “good Christians” because Jesus was good, not because you are.  Think of it this way: Grace produces good works, works do not produce grace.

This little sermon today is the most blatant attack on the Gospel that I can recall hearing, and it makes me angry.  I’ve got a book about to be published (sometime this summer), tentatively called Free, that explains all this in far greater detail.  Check back in a month or two for more information on the book.

In the meantime, read Galatians, and be Free.


Oct 27 2009

N.T. Wright’s Justification, Pt. 5

This post continues my series as I think through NT Wright’s recent book, Justification. For those who are lazy or short on time, I’ve bullet-pointed my thoughts at the bottom of the post.

In Chapter 6 , entitled Interlude, Wright addresses Paul’s letters to the Pilippians, Corinthians, and Ephesians.  None of these are major books in dealing with justification, but he doesn’t want to ignore them, either.  It’s an interesting chapter, one which let’s Wright retell some of his main points.  I still am struggling, however, with really getting a handle on his definition of “justification.”  It seems that it could be said like this: Justification is not having your sins forgiven, it is belonging to the people of God (who, as it turns out, have and will have their sins forgiven).  The “old perspective” view is generally that justification provides forgiveness of our sins, so we can then be part of the people of God.  Most people probably won’t care about the distinction, but many folks – especially Calvinists like John Piper – do.  Justification is a specific response to John Piper’s criticisms; I would probably understand some of Wright’s statements better had I read Piper’s book, but I just can’t bring myself to devote time to reading Piper.  So, let’s continue on looking at various statements I flagged as I read this chapter.

First, on page 145 Wright states, “The keeping of the law was not a way of earning anything, of gaining a status before God; …  All that Torah-obedience does … is to express what is already given.”   Of course, some of this is obviously true; the majority of the laws reflected God’s holiness, and the Law set Israel apart from the rest of the world.  However, this doesn’t seem true for that part of the Law dealing with atonement.  On p.146 he summarizes, “The question is not,’What must I do to get to heaven?’ but How can you tell in the present who will be vindicated in the future?” This, however, is not any of purposes that Paul gives for the Law, that I recall, although Wright specifically claims (p. 147) that “This is what Paul the apostle referred to as ‘justification by works.'”

Wright admits (p. 149) that justification means “the establishment of a personal relationship,” but says, “But this is extremely misleading.”  Wright is reacting against the contemporary existentialist interpretation of “personal relationship with God” that suffers when someone has a moment of personal crisis.  This I agree with; however, I don’t know that this justifies (pun intended once again) Wright’s re-definition.

Dealing with Ephesians on page 170, Wright mentions that Eph. 2:8 is the only place where Paul mentions being saved by faith; in other places, he talks about being justified. Rather than make the assumption that the terms are therefore equivalent, he states that here Paul is talking about salvation, where elsewhere he is talking about justification, making the distinction, “justified in the present, saved in the future.”  But then, he states that Paul sees both justification and salvation as past, present and future.  So, where does this leave us?  “… justification is God’s declaration that someone is in the right, is a member of the sin-forgiven covenant family, while salvation is the actual rescue from death and sin.”  Personally, I don’t think Paul is being that precise, but rather uses justification and salvation as different expressions to explain a rather large concept.

Then in verses 14 & 15, he sees what he believes is the point Paul is trying to make,

14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations.

pointing out that this is where James Dunn had his “major breakthrough” in discovering the new perspective.  The Law was the divide between Jew and Gentile, and now Law has been removed, so that the 2 can be one.  Rather than the Law being the enemy of grace, the Law is the enemy of the unified Church, which is crucial for the continuation of God’s plan for the healing of creation. On page 173 he states

…the church, thus united through the grace of God in the death of Jesus, is the sign to the principalities and powers that their time is up.

For NT Wright, the point of justification is that the church is now united without the Law, that ecclesiology is at the “very center of the gospel.”  For Wright, this also means that the church has a political role, suggesting that the evangelical church doesn’t want to consider this, although he points out that some of the kingdom theology of Luther and others touches on this point.

Thoughts

There are a number of things with which I think I agree with Wright (that is, if I am following him accurately).

  • Justification and salvation (regardless of their relationship to each other) have a broader scope than simply our individual “relationship to God” and “getting to Heaven when we die.”
  • God’s plan was to bless the world through Israel and that work was and is being completed through Jesus, and the Church now carries on as a part of that work.
  • Furthermore, God’s plan for salvation/justification was to redeem all of creation.
  • I believe – so far in my studies, anyway – in the Christus Victor theory of the atonement, which is quite in line with the Eastern Orthodox view.  This also means rejecting the penal substitution view, which is central to Calvinism (explaining at least some of Piper’s heartburn).
  • Salvation/justification cannot be understood as merely an individual issue; our individual relationship with God flows from his Covenant with Israel/the Church.

I also do not disagree with much of what he is saying about how justification impacts the church and the Jew-Gentile divide; I simply question whether that is indeed the central point.  Again, I see Wright as reacting to the contemporary evangelical existentialist model of Christianity, where the church is, if anything, optional, and our only focus is heaven, not Earth.  But, I have never had this view.

Finally, I agree with Wright’s closing comments in this chapter, where he says that both old and new perspectives “belong within a larger vision of Paul’s gospel and theology than much … had ever invisaged.”

Next, Wright tackles Romans.  This should be interesting.


Sep 18 2009

An Orthodox view of Salvation

My friend Duncan posted the following video on Facebook this evening.  It’s worth watching, whatever your theological background; it’s especially worth watching if you’ve no familiarity with Eastern Orthodoxy.

I have a very deep respect and appreciation for Eastern Orthodoxy, although I do have some disagreements with various points. (Of course, to the Eastern Orthodox, my issues don’t matter.) I have just finished reading Three Views of Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, in which a number of theologians discuss various differences in approach.  I have perhaps more disagreements with evangelicalism than I do with Eastern Orthodoxy; as I’ve remarked before, I tend often to side with Luther, who tends to be somewhere in the middle of these two camps.  This is not because I was raised Lutheran (I don’t think, anyway), but because Luther just seems to echo what Paul appears to say.

So, while I do agree with much that is said in the video, the Orthodox position on cooperative salvation – our work being added to the work of Christ – is something I have an issue with.  I do agree that we were saved 2,000 years ago, that I am currently being saved (Luther seemed to agree with the Orthodox understanding of theosis or deification), and that at the final judgment I will be saved.  Again, this is simply an echo of Paul.

My problem with the Orthodox view comes from 2 main sources: Paul, and Jesus.  And yes, these are pretty good sources.  The Orthodox view of cooperative salvation seems to beg Paul’s rhetorical question in Galatians 3:3: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”  Paul seems to be clearly saying in this letter that to add any human effort to the work of Christ is to lose the Gospel completely.

To this, add the words of Jesus in John 10:27-29:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.

I do believe that we are to continue in good works; that is the work of the Spirit in us. I just don’t believe that this contributes at all to our salvation, and in fact, can be as dangerous as Peter’s reverting to kosher food.  That’s not me, that’s Paul.  I’m guessing that there is an Orthodox interpretation of Galatians, and I would be very interested in seeing it.

Without further commentary, here’s the video.  Again, I do agree with most of it, and very much appreciate the spirit in which this is presented: