Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Losing My Religion

Below is a video from one of my favorite bands during my teen and young adult years.  Ironically, I could not be more ideologically or theologically distant from them, since they are unabashedly atheistic, but I love their music and though I disagree with them on many fronts I can't help but sympathize with them sometimes when it comes to their jabs at organized religion, namely organized "Christianity."

I think when we who call ourselves "Christian" lose our ability to sympathize with the grievances of those who don't believe as we do we lose our touch with this world.  When we cease to be able to listen and have willingness to see some validity in their complaints and objections, some of them very personal, we become unrelatable.  When we live in our Christian bubble where everything is about playing the Christian part and doing Christian things, we become someone that outsiders see as detached and unconcerned for this world.
And along with all of this, when we embrace the un-Biblical idea that all sin and brokenness can be fixed and changed in this world, unable to live in and love people in the real world where things are not so black-and-white, we become unrelatable to people who are really struggling and really suffering in this world, which is everyone at some point.

Unfortunately, many self-professing "Christians" become unrelatable, and we dismiss it with quick catch-phrases like "We're in the world but not of the world" or "The Gospel offends people -I can't help that."  We do care about some important things.  We care about pro-life.  We care about moral issues.  We care, to some degree, about feeding the poor -I mean, we'll at least give money at church for it.  But when our best friend is going off the deep end, we forget about them.  When people we once loved aren't living right, we distance ourselves from them. Maybe we are afraid we will become more like them because we are aware of our own weaknesses.  But maybe we are afraid that we don't know what to do because we have this idea burnt into our brains that all sin can be fixed -and if it can't just be fixed and overcome through some prayer and Christian self-help books, then we panic and don't know what to do about it.

We have a reputation for being up-tight and unrelatable.  And because of that, we fuel the erroneous assumption of our larger culture:  becoming a "Christian" means becoming just like that.  The larger culture, as men like Tim Keller have pointed out, generally believes that when we call them to believe in Jesus we are calling them to be essentially "Christian" religious moralists -people who are up-tight, unrelatable, who do their little Christian cultural things, who have their practices and their moral code (but with a nice Jesus emblem on it), and who then try to push it on everyone else.

"Well, gee... when you say it that way, I can see why someone wouldn't want that..."

It is true, of course, that God can save people in spite of our imperfections.  That is 100% true.  But that doesn't mean we aren't responsible for our non-conformity to the Gospel (myself included).  And it is also true that the Gospel is just offensive and repulsive by its very nature.  After all, that is how we are saved.  Hearing the Gospel brings about a death in us.  It clobbers our self-righteous, self-glorifying, self-deluded flesh.  But then something happens with most of us.  We become immersed in Christian culture and the "Christian look" which may have very little to do with the Gospel at all.  We forget that we should be daily returning to the place where we were first saved, the place where we saw ourselves in one amazing moment as simultaneously sinful, condemnable, guilty, and broken, but also justified, forgiven, accepted, and beloved for the sake of the One who died for us.

The song above talks about a pastor who climbs up to his pulpit and solemnly delivers shocking news to his congregation:  he can't relate to any of them.  The implication is that he is abandoning his faith because he can't relate to it and to any of the people who make up the community who embrace it.
Here's a story of an honest man losing religion,
Climbing the pulpit steps before an eager congregation,
The while praying came a wicked inspiration,
Brothers, sisters this is what he said:

Dearly beloved, dearly beloved, dearly beloved,
(Make no mistake, despite our traits, I've seldom seen evidence of genes)
I can't relate to you, I can't relate to you!

Sadly, I believe it is possible that plenty of people walk away from "Christianity" not only because of our common love for rebellion but sometimes perhaps mainly because they have the image of God in them which hates the smell of a counterfeit.

What is the solution?  It is easy to pick out flaws.  I don't know how to implement anything on a practical level.  To an outsider, they would say our Christianity is too strong.  If we toned it down a bit, we would be less up-tight and more open to different people and struggling people.  We just need to become more like those liberal and nominal Christians, right?  They go to church and stuff, but they know how to leave that behind and return to real life.  That is what we need, right?  Moderation...

No, that is false.  Our Christianity, true Christianity, needs to be deeper.  There are two things that the cross of Christ opposes, not just one.  The cross of Christ opposes open sin, but it also opposes pretentious, detached, happy-clappy-bubble religiosity.  It calls the "sinner" out of the pig slop, but it also pops the hot-air inflated bubble of the "good religious."  It brings us both down to earth where God is God and we are humans who rely on His unconditional grace.

I don't want to over-generalize, but has it dawned on the Church that Jesus alienated religious people but was a friend to "sinners?"  And yet today, many Christians are alienated from "sinners" and fit in quite well with religious people.  Hmm... 

We don't need strategies to try to be hip and "relevant."  External strategies don't change the attitude behind it all.  We need to come back down to earth out of the lofty clouds of organized "Christianity."

Monday, September 19, 2011

Simul Iustus et Peccator

I always thought Latin was cool.  It was mandatory to take two years of latin at the private school I went to, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There is something just... what's the word... classic or distinguished about it.

The phrase "simul iustus et peccator" is a Latin phrase that comes out of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther used it to describe the state of a believer in Christ.  He is simultaneously just and sinful.  In Christ, through faith in Him because of His death and resurrection for us, we are simultaneously declared righteous or "right" in God's sight and yet sinful. 

This truth, this reality, is not some mere factual declaration.  Living in this is exactly what frees us.  For it is how the old us is slain in the shadow of the cross, and it is what brings the new us out of the grave.  The cross of Christ tells you, "Jesus had to die because of your sins.  All of your pretensions of goodness, all your moral improvement projects are for naught.  The blood of the Son of God was necessary for you."  This is the death knell to all of our spiritual pride, to the old Adam in us... the same old Adam that likes to do bad things or likes to maintain control by trying to be good.  It says, "Your efforts are for naught.  You are cursed, and this is what it took to save you."

But then it says, "Yet the grace of God has come in this cross, in this crucified Savior, to blot out all your sins and bring you into the throne room of grace."  This is where faith is awakened, where the new man is awakened in us.  Grace upon grace.  God has not cast us off.  He has done the impossible.  You are the prodigal, the lost son and sinner, and the Father has thrown a party for you.  You are justified, accepted, adopted...

The combination of these truths is what undergirds the Christian life and what fuels our change and growth in faith and love.  Seeing that the cross declares us "peccator" (sinful), all the aspirations of the old Adam in us with his sin and pretenses and self-sufficient self-improvement programs are exposed as futile, ending in and deserving only death.  But seeing that the cross declares us "iustus" (righteous), a new love is kindled in the heart in which we find ourselves allied with God anew.  The old is condemned to death and the new is awakened in faith.

Seeing this is a daily need.  It is something to live in.  It is not something we need just once, and it is through this that we are made new, day by day, as the old Adam is constantly sent back to the grave.  As Forde wrote,

"We should make no mistake about it: sin is to be conquered and expelled.  But if we see that sin is the total state of standing against the unconditional grace and goodness of God, if sin is our very incredulity, unbelief, mistrust, our insistence on falling back on our self and maintaining control, then it is only through the total grace of God that sin comes under attack, and only through faith in that total grace that sin is defeated.  To repeat: sin is not defeated by a repair job, but by dying and being raised new."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Liturgy Again

I've posted before on the theological implications of the Sunday morning worship liturgy.  Maybe you think I'm splitting theological hairs.  Why change what seems to be working in churches all across America?

I understand.  It is hard to buck against the tide.  Every church in town, and what seems like every church in America, follows the same pattern:  "praise and worship" music, then sermon, then some kind of blessing and dismissal.

But when I show up on Sunday morning, I'm not really all that excited.  I'm tired.  I'm fleshly.  I'm dull.  I'm expectant of what the Lord will do, but the "praise and worship" part feels like more of an obstacle.  Yes, I know there are some super-elite Christians out there who would tell me that I need to prepare more for worship.  I need to go to bed earlier.  I need to pray more the night before.

The problem is that even if I do all of those things, it doesn't change the fact that I show up to church with my old Adam.  Maybe part of the problem is that we don't get what the old Adam is.  We think he is the part of us that wants to watch bad movies and listen to Lady Gaga and hang out at bars.  He is (that was a joke about Lady Gaga).  But the old Adam is also the religious fraud in us, the perpetual spiritual climber, the part of us who longs for a spiritual todo list, who still wants to believe that he can do it, he can become more moral, more spiritual, and more close to God if he just applies himself.  That is the part of me that screws everything up.  That is the part of me that needs to die.

And that is the part of me that does die whenever I hear the word of the cross, the word about Jesus.  What does the Bible say?  "Faith comes by hearing..."  ...hearing the word about Jesus.  Worship comes through faith, and faith comes by hearing. Faith is when the old Adam is put in the grave by the Word, the Gospel, and the new man rises to life.

This is why we leave church with a heart that is full and joyful and inspired, after hearing about what Jesus has done for us.  In other words, we leave church ready for worship.  Then wouldn't it make sense to put the worship singing right there, after the Word?

Let's summarize it.  Worship springs out of faith.  Faith comes by hearing the Word of the Gospel.  Ergo, the "praise and worship" should follow the preaching.  Simple?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Short Thoughts on Sanctification

I've been reading a great article on sanctification by the late Gerhard Forde, found here:

I want to write something longer, later, on this topic, which is so important, but I want to point out a few things in passing that jump out at me from the article.

First, sanctification in modern evangelical circles is largely thought of as a separet thing from justification.  You get "justified" and then it is time to get on with the work of sanctification, which is something we do.  But as Forde points out, the Bible does not separate justifaction and santification like that.  Not only is sanctification something that God does, it is something that happens in connection with justification.  It is, as Forde puts it, "getting used to unconditional justification."

Second, sanctification is not to be equated with living morally or trying to climb some kind of moral latter.  There is nothing wrong with living morally -don't miss the point.  The point is that making sanctification some kind of religious or moral ladder is essentially to hand the reigns back to the old Adam in us.  "Sin is a slavery which we escape only through death," Forde notes.  You can't escape sin through moral improvement and effort.  Only through death.  What death?  The death that has happened to us through our union with Christ.  Check out Romans 6:1-11.  We are to consider ourselves dead already.  Done.  The more we see that, the less power the old Adam in us has.

Third, in this truth, sanctification is about being made new.  It isn't about us doing.  It is about a new man being made where the old has died.  It is through hearing that faith is borne, and it is through faith in the declaration that we are "dead" in Christ, dead through free, unconditional grace and justification, that the new man rises from the grave with Christ.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Mocking the Cross

We mock the cross when we do not take all of our guilt to it but hold some of it within, deciding how we will redeem or punish ourselves accordingly.  We minimize the significance of both our sin and the cross, opting instead to hide behind a wall with our self-redemption projects or self-flagellation, and we thereby rob ourselves also of the joy and power of the cross to change us.

We mock the cross when we will not forgive someone, because we are mocking the way in which God dealt with all sin and seeks to deal with all of us, reconciling the world to Himself through the blood of Jesus.  We say, "No, God.  Your way is insufficient.  My way is better, more just."

We mock the cross when we substitute a Christian image or ideal for God's Law.  A Christian image is more attainable, and we might just convince ourselves that we are pulling it off.  But there is no savior from this image, only from God's Law, so we not only empty the cross of its power but empty ourselves of any real options.  Self is a very, very poor savior.

Friday, September 02, 2011

The Law Cannot Produce What it Commands

The Law commands, what?  Love.  At it's essence, God's Law commands love.  That is something that is found in the heart and which ripples out through the actions.  This goes beyond mere outward deeds and gets right down to the very motivations behind what we do and how we interact with others.

What do you do when you see that you fail?  What, as a Christian, do you do?  Well, one of the purposes of the Law is to show you that you are guilty and need a savior.  So, even as a Christian, the Law is intended to show you that you still need Jesus, you still need grace.  You aren't now some superman.

But this answer is not satisfactory to most of us.  The fear is that we will abuse grace -we will use grace as a context to minimize the grievous nature of our sin.  The fear may be real.  We may actually abuse grace.  Or it may be more hypothetical.  We are afraid of grace that free.  We are used to operating within the safe but cruel confines of performance-based living, complete with the hope of self-redemption and the biting sting and grinding pressure of condemnation.  We essentially say to ourselves, "You don't deserve grace because you will abuse it, so I'm putting you back under the Law to punish you and teach you a lesson."

Let me illustrate what I mean.  Let's say there is a man who was taught always that "real Christians" give 10% of their money to church faithfully.  Now, there is nothing wrong with that, so don't miss the point.  But this person frets and worries because he finds himself in predicaments often where he cannot afford to pay the amount he predetermined.  He also has to eat and pay rent.  He feels guilty, blaming his mismanagement of money.  How dare he buy things for himself, for example, or do something fun with his wife!

So, he turns to Dave Ramsey out of guilt.  He may tell himself that he wants to do right by the Lord, but this goal is mixed heavily with a desire to wipe away his sense of guilt and condemnation.  Dave Ramsey's advice just makes him feel worse, because he has a difficult time even doing that.  So what does he do?

He runs to his Bible.  He reads about Ananias and Sapphira.  He reads about sacrificial giving.  He reads about cheerful giving.  He looks at himself and at his heart and is terrified and depressed.  He is not cheerful -he is stressed about it!  And because he "mismanaged" his money by spending it on a few personal things that month, he concludes he is selfish.  He then wonders if he should force himself to starve for a few weeks so that he can just pay the tithe and get it over with.  But he sees the lack of love and other-centeredness in his motivations there and just feels worse.

Where to turn now?  He wants to turn back to the treadmill of the Law, so back to the Dave Ramsey website... and the cycle continues.  Guilt, trying to pull up his bootstraps, failure, guilt, condemnation, more trying to pull up his bootstraps, etc.  And at the end, he is not left with a heart that feels more loving and cheerful for giving.  He is left with a heart that feels condemned and defeated... and exhausted.

Where is Jesus in all of this?  Jesus stands not as Savior but as disappointed Lawgiver, shaking his head at how this poor man can't just get it together.

The thing is... the Law will do its job.  It will show you that you fail, eventually.  And it will eventually show you that you need a savior.  But who will that savior be?  Will it be you or will it be Jesus?  Will it send you back on yourself, in the endless cycle of performance and guilt and shame, falling into a deeper pit because you see that living under the Law does not and cannot change your heart?  Or will it send you to Jesus, to see the One who suffered, the pure One who was killed by your sins and for your sins, the one who gave and gave and gave to you in you poverty until it killed Him, and thus to see that you are free from your condemnation for something like poor stewardship, and thus to live in that freedom and go to Dave Ramsey out of that?