Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit

My heart sank as I read this headline: North Carolina Church Plans Halloween Bible Burning. My first thought was that a church had developed such a disrespect for the Bible and a sense of license for taking "freedom in Christ" that they thought this kind of behavior was okay, even exemplary.

The reality was worse. Some excerpts (the article is mercifully short):
Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, says that the first King James translation of the Bible is the only true declaration of God’s word, and that all others are “satanic”. ... “[We will be burning] books by a lot of different authors who we consider heretics, such as Billy Graham, Rick Warren… the list goes on and on,” Pastor Grizzard told reporters. ... Mother Teresa is also on the list of Satanic authors.
As I read this, I recalled the Bible's definition of the "unforgivable sin": attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to demons (or the Devil). In Matthew 12:31-32 (KJV, for Grizzard's sake):
Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
I now understand a bit better why blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is such a terrible sin, sharing a bit of the heartbreak God must feel at being so slandered by someone calling himself a Christian. A militant, God-hating atheist would be more likely to come to know God than this man. I'm not sure there's still any point to it, but I'm praying for Pastor Grizzard. Pray with me if you like, and for God's sake, be careful about calling anything "Satanic".

Friday, October 25, 2013

Worship as Drunken Revelry; Faith as Music of the Heart

I set out to write another update of my thinking on the role of gender in the church, in light of some thought-provoking recent posts on the subject by Rachel Held Evans and Richard Beck. I'll get to that. I was rereading Ephesians 5 to this end, when suddenly verses 18-21, the part leading directly up to the controversial passage on women submitting, jumped out at me
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
"Do not get drunk with wine"; or probably more generally "do not get drunk" okay, that's a simple command, easy, I can do that. (Except maybe when there are mixed drinks and my curious urge to sample everything kicks in) But the part after that had never really made sense to me: "but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart". It always gave me some odd, unnatural mental image of Christians going around singing spiritual ditties to each other instead of speaking, maybe holding candles or like The Sound of Music in church. It was honestly kind of creepy.

Matthew Henry's classic commentary helps point out how Paul is intentionally drawing parallels between his instructions for Christians and pagan festivals such as Bacchanalia, where revelers would get very drunk on wine and sing songs to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and merrymaking. Henry says, "[Drunkenness] was a sin very frequent among the heathens; and particularly on occasion of the festivals of their gods, and more especially in their Bacchanalia: then they were wont to inflame themselves with wine, and all manner of inordinate lusts were consequent upon it...Drunkards are wont to sing obscene and profane songs. The heathens, in their Bacchanalia, used to sing hymns to Bacchus, whom they called the god of wine. Thus they expressed their joy; but the joy of Christians should express itself in songs of praise to their God."

This is interesting because you might expect Paul to try to distance himself as far as possible from the licentiousness of these drunken heathens. Instead, he describes how the spiritual life of Christians should mirror that of the pagans, but with the true God as the object of worship and the Holy Spirit as the intoxicant. The phrase "singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart" really jumped out at me. I realized I had been imagining Paul's instructions too literally, and with none of the pagan parallels. I think he is basically saying that we should live for and worship God like drunken pagans reveling and singing songs at a feast! (Or for a more modern example, Bavarians drinking and singing at Oktoberfest)

I will have many interesting meditations on this image of Christians adoring their Christ, but one thing that sticks out to me now is that there are few who take themselves less seriously than drunken revelers, even if they are taking their god very seriously! By "singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart", you worship the way you enjoy really good music (the kind with driving across the country to hear): with your mind, passions, soul, and body; not passively, or standing on the sidelines pontificating. Paul gives a very experiential and participatory picture of Christian spirituality that I find very compelling.

One objection answered: you may say, "This verse is all well and good, but we must not give in to anti-intellectualism and instead balance it with verses that tell us to 'be transformed by the renewing of your mind' (Rom 12:2), keep a close watch on our teaching (1 Tim 4:16), and so on." And I agree, but I would remind you that these letters were originally sent out piecemeal to specific individuals, churches, or regions, who could not have systemized the teaching of the whole New Testament in such a way. And so if you view verses such as Ephesians 5:18-21 that emphasize Christianity-as-experience as being in tension with verses that depict it more as teaching or doctrine (both are translated from the same Greek word, didaskalia) and that for this reason you need both, you imply that Paul gave the Ephesians an imbalanced and possibly dangerous subset of what Christianity is.

I am beginning to get over the anti-intellectualism I flirted with earlier this year as I am guided to a changed understanding of the role Christian theological study and teaching play. I was speaking to myself earlier when I said that Christian worship and practice (which I am convinced are the same thing) cannot be enjoyed "passively, or standing on the sidelines pontificating". Is it possible the intellectual side of Christianity that has become so prominent today to be part of this "drunken revelry"—our knowledge of God intricately tied in with our experience of God and practice of holiness? I think it must be.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A parable on the personhood of dogs

A neuroscientist recently had the idea of training dogs to go into an MRI scanner while awake to observe their brains' reaction to to some signals and stimuli. His findings suggest that "dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child." Read the whole article if you want; it gave me an interesting idea for an analogy to my view on New Testament verses that prescribe certain roles and rules for women (and slaves).

Imagine that, today, a prominent pastor and church-planter write an open letter to a church he had a hand in starting. Part of the letter contained some uncontroversial instructions to pet owners on how to treat their dogs: feed and water them regularly, take them for walks, pet them and give them attention, don't be cruel to them, and so on. Imagine that, somehow, this letter, including the instructions for dog owners, became a new book of the Bible. Imagine further that, sometime in the future, a movement based on Dr. Berns' research appears and eventually succeeds at convincing the world that dogs really are people too. Dogs are given all the rights of people, owning them as pets becomes illegal, and they are allowed to live much more independently. Though they are still dependent on humans, progress is being made to allow them to exist alongside us as equals in value.

The secular world looks back on this new book of the Bible with horror. What kind of a barbaric, backward religion is Christianity, viewing dogs merely as pets instead of people? It becomes a frequent point of attack on the church. Some Christians are made uncomfortable by these passages and seek to explain them away as "cultural" or contextualized to a former time when we hadn't yet decided that pets are people. Other Christians, having none of this, settle into a defensive stance against "the world", asserting that because these instructions are in the Bible, dogs really aren't people and should be kept as pets, which they continue to (illegally) do. Conservative pastors preach a "dog"-ma of complementarianism, arguing that the Bible clearly teaches that dogs were created to serve as man's pets and "best friends", not as equal persons. Dramatic raids on their homes by PETA exposing and freeing these secret pets frequently make the evening news.

Are dogs people or not? Does the future-church need to answer this question from scripture?

Evangelism as an act of love

Last night I had the opportunity to study Acts 22, in which Paul rather fearlessly recounts his testimony to an angry Jewish mob as he is being arrested by Roman soldiers. We discussed how Paul starts by establishing credibility with the audience through his backstory (v. 1-5), tells the story of his conversion and how Jesus appeared to him (v. 6-16), and how the Jews listen to him intently until he mentions how God sent him to the Gentiles (v. 21-22). I had this beautiful image of Paul standing on the barracks steps addressing this mob with care and the tragedy of how they turn on him afterward.

And then (you see how nonlinearly my brain works) the question came to me: what is the difference between fearlessly testifying to the gospel amid opposition, as Paul did, and bludgeoning people over the head with it so that they resent you and want nothing to do with your Jesus? This question troubles me because it is easy for us as Christians to want to just turn off our shame of the gospel (Mar 8:38) and just expect it to offend people (see Matt 10:32-42), thus justifying out handling the gospel in ways that only serve to drive people away from Jesus. But if Jesus is supposed to be a "stone of stumbling and a rock of offense" (Rom 9:33), is authentic preaching then expected to drive some people away from Jesus? Are we preaching the real Jesus for people to accept or reject, or a caricature? These questions have no easy answers.

Then I came to a sobering realization. We talk about sharing the gospel with people as if it's the most loving thing we could do for them—sometimes even more so than taking care of their physical needs. Preachers often utilize appeals to our compassion for "the lost" when calling for evangelism. But though we say that sharing the gospel is an act of love, often we don't actually do so as if it was—but more as if we were trying to sell something, or even to trick our hearers into having a conversation they don't want to have. How else do you explain the wealth of opening lines, "survey questions", "seeker-sensitive" events, and all of the other evangelical devices for drawing people into a conversation that is supposed to be the best thing that's ever happened to them? Yes, you may say, but how else can we get them to talk to us? Well, what if people don't want to talk to us about Jesus because they're suspicious of inauthentic salesman tactics?

I thought about it some more, and I think I see at least three characteristics that should describe us when we are proclaiming the gospel to people.


For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you. For we are not writing to you anything other than what you read and understand and I hope you will fully understand—just as you did partially understand us—that on the day of our Lord Jesus you will boast of us as we will boast of you. (2 Cor 1:12-14)
For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Cor 2:17)
But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Cor 4:2)
This strikes at the heart of the uneasiness I've felt about attempts to effectively "trick" people into hearing the gospel, such as PULSE Twin Cities about two years ago, which attracted potential gospel-hearers with the promise of a free Owl City concert. Of course it did deliver on this promise and people were (I'm sure) given forewarning and a chance to leave before the event switched to a straight-faced presentation of the gospel. But the main point of the event (the gospel presentation) was not the reason people showed up (a free Owl City/Family Force 5/Grits concert, or for those in the know, to invite and accompany friends they wanted to hear the gospel). For this reason the whole thing made me deeply uneasy and I very deliberately didn't go.

I wonder what was going through the minds of the people who left when they learned someone was about to share the gospel with them. If I can be allowed to speculate (and my own blog seems like the safest place to do so), I'd guess it was something like Oh, there those Christians go again, always pushing their agenda. I should have guessed they were going to talk to us about Jesus! Why couldn't they just let me enjoy the music?

Imagine (in an inversion of the similar MAZE event that swept through the midwest a few years ago), you hear from some excited friends about a magic show that will be coming to your student union in a few weeks. You are told that other schools in your area have already been amazed by this show and you can't wait to hear what all the hype is about. When you go, the show lives up to your expectations: it has two magicians doing card tricks, juggling, people "losing" limbs, a water tank escape, and plenty of mental magic and predictions, to name just a few, all while making you laugh with wit and humor. Interspersed throughout are some interesting reflections on the tricks the duo is doing, the nature of illusion, and the mind's propensity to believe what it wants to believe that makes their magic possible. You are equal parts amazed, intrigued, and entertained by the show and find yourself applauding enthusiastically after every trick. Then, just before an intermission, you are told that the second half of the show will be an exposition of why there almost certainly is no God and how you can learn to think critically and rationally instead of believing in fairy tales. The magical duo is Penn & Teller and this show is one more stop on their project to enlighten young minds about religion and pseudoscience. You leave in a huff, feeling tricked and betrayed into coming to and enjoying this show that spits on everything you, a good Christian, believe in.

Of course, this probably wouldn't happen because Penn & Teller's atheism is fairly well-known and I can't see them using such a bait-and-switch tactic when they have few qualms making their beliefs known through more direct methods. So why do we feel the need to defy Paul's example and hide the gospel—purportedly the best news our listeners will ever hear—in candy coating so people won't notice it until we have them where we want them? Could we be driving away more people by making them feel tricked, pressured, or manipulated than with the actual content of the gospel? What if our openness and honesty in clearly telling people what we believe and why could be more attractive and conversation-starting than any gimmick or "spiritual survey"? What if our conduct showed that we were not ashamed of or secretive about the gospel, "but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God"?

But in addition to open and honest, we must also become at least two other things in our preaching the gospel...


For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. (1 Cor 9:19)

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (Jam 3:13-18)

Whence came the Satanic delusion that being forgiven through Christ makes us in any way superior to those who haven't? Are we any more moral, enlightened, or respectable than they? Maybe, maybe not—none of these things are the "point" of our Christian faith and we reject Jesus if we turn our eyes from Him to them. The point of the gospel that Paul tries to hammer into peoples' heads over and over (e.g. in Romans and Galatians) is that we are in no way better for having been saved, because this salvation is based not on anything we did to deserve it but God's free grace in giving it. In other words, we have nothing on those who don't know Jesus except that we do know Him—except if we really do know Him, we will not want to lord it over anyone but to do everything possible to invite them to share in this gift. "Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith." (2 Cor 1:24)

But not all preaching reflects this. Our attitudes toward "the lost" range from compassionate, welcoming acceptance to rather condescendingly viewing them as targets in need of salvation to openly belittling them and scorning their lack of faith. We put ourselves above others by viewing ourselves as their teachers and guides, without ever considering that God may use them to teach us a thing or two. We think that we possess "the truth" that people so desperately need to hear, forgetting that the Truth is a person who reveals Himself to people as He wishes and doesn't need us to do it, and that we still need Him just as much as they do (because salvation is not a single event but a process).

What is really going on when we forget humility in our preaching of the gospel is that we are applying a worldly rubric of greatness where it doesn't apply: because we are "saved" and know the gospel, we are in some way greater than those who aren't or don't. Remember what Jesus said about greatness: "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves." (Luk 22:25-27) The greatest being in the universe came to us as a humble servant of all and never once lorded His status (even as a teacher) over anyone. Should we do any less?

Honesty and humility—two essential components for evangelism, which should also be...


For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor 9:19:23)

I've already written a two-part post on this topic for my church, which I will attempt to briefly summarize. We hopefully believe that the gospel message is for all people at all times, i.e. there is no one it "doesn't apply to". But if the crux of its truth is the person of Jesus Christ and not reducible to merely a series of facts or statements, then the way we tell this message may sound different to different people. As a Biblical example (besides Acts 17, which the second above-linked post covers extensively), consider in brief how Paul and James write to their readers—one downplays the role of works and discourages focusing on them in favor of simply believing, the other emphasizes the importance of right living in addition to right belief (see more on this distinction here). So, is the gospel for or against works? Neither—it depends on the context you're in!

What breaks my heart is when I see the gospel handled in a very inflexible way that rejects contextualization, out of fear of "watering down" its message as though we were in a competition to see who can proclaim the straightest gospel. We make doctrines like total depravity, the justice and holiness of God (as intolerance for sin), and satisfaction theories of atonement into essential components of the gospel, sending the message that to be saved, you don't just have to believe in God—you have to believe in God like I do, and go through the same steps to belief that I did. And so we may unintentionally put obstacles in peoples' way, where to believe in God you must first believe a laundry list of other things.

Look at Acts 17: when he is invited to the Areopagus to present his "new idea" to the Greeks, Paul spends most of his words not enumerating four points or teaching doctrines, but simply establishing common ground with these pagans. His message is not that they are desperately lost, in rebellion, and in need of a savior, but rather that they already worship the true God (v. 23), albeit without really knowing Who they are worshipping, and that "he is actually not far from each one of us" (v. 27). He does give a call for repentance (v. 30), but with no mention of sin or human depravity; judgment, but no law that we have broken; the resurrection of Jesus, but not the crucifixion (v. 31). His presentation of the gospel is hopelessly fragmented and incomplete by today's standards—but it works! He isn't as concerned with getting the Greeks to believe in the same doctrines he does as to get them to believe in the same wonderful God that he does.

It takes imagination and creativity outside the scope of this blog to see how the gospel applies to every person's situation where they're at, and not just once they've been convinced of the logical truth of Christianity. Quite often we can't see ourselves, and can only watch and be amazed as God shows up in ways we could never have predicted.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Procrustean-bed gospel

Along with my conviction about my writing yesterday came the reminder that I still don't really "get" the gospel like I should. Maybe no one does, but I remembered how this isn't okay and how I would really like to better understand the message of why Jesus became human, lived, died, and rose again that flashed across the first-century Mediterranean like lightning and changed the world. So I started rereading Romans—considered by many evangelicals to be the clearest and fullest presentation of the crucial message of life known as "the gospel", and the source of what God pointed out in me: "Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things." (Rom 2:1)

I'm not out to completely summarize Paul's presentation of the gospel in Romans; I haven't even finished reading and you may as well just read the book itself (Paul is probably less long-winded than I would be). I agree with my fellow believers in saying that much of Romans (certainly chapters 1-8) is an exquisite and detailed presentation of the gospel. After his introduction and greeting, Paul writes 1:16-17 almost as a header to the discourse that will follow: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”"

Then he totally changes gears in what he says next: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." He proceeds to expound on the nature of and reasons for this wrath for the rest of the chapter. What I realized is that Paul is not just writing in a vacuum. He is doing battle with an imagined Jewish interlocutor learned in the law and trusting in his own righteousness (perhaps even his former self, the Pharisee and persecutor of Christians). This becomes obvious in chapter 2, which goes from talking about "those people" and their nasty sins to directly addressing "you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself" (2:3) Paul pulls no punches in including the Jews in his condemnation.
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (2:17-24)
Though Jews are better off in some way than Gentiles (3:1-2), they are by no means free from the universal burden of sin and have no special excuse or "out" with God for it because of their status. In verses 10-18 he puts together a virtual mashup of verses to get across the point that no one is righteous in God's sight on their own merits. No one measures up. Christians who use Romans 3:23 in a morally superior way to convict someone of their sin miss the point completely. Paul is speaking to the breadth of sin, not necessarily its depth.

But that is all an aside to what my reading of Romans so far has gotten me thinking about, and that is the idea of God's righteousness. Paul mentions or appeals to it many times throughout these chapters, first in 1:17, and repeatedly in 3:21-26.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
I started thinking: it makes sense that Paul would talk so much about how the gospel relates to God's righteousness being revealed in Jesus and in us, because he seems to be writing largely to Jewish Christians who would have grown up being instructed in the laws of God and trained to seek His righteousness—through the law. So later he writes about how Christ has released us from the law (7:6) which was roughly coterminous with being enslaved by sin and freed us to live with Christ to God (6:10).

Then I got curious about how much Paul writes about righteousness in other letters and did some research. Where Paul mentions "righteousness" 32 times in his letter to the Romans, he mentions it just once in his first letter to the Corinthians:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1:27-31)
So not only does Paul emphasize the idea of "righteousness" much, much less to the Corinthians, he does so in a rather different way.  Instead of it being something that belongs to God, that He reveals and accounts to us, Christ became righteousness to the Corinthians along with wisdom, sanctification, and redemption. Paul then spends most of the rest of the letter instructing and disciplining the Corinthians.

I think Paul was instructing each church in the way it needed. To those in Rome who boasted in their faithfulness to the law, Paul demonstrates how universal the problem of sin is so that they will realize their need for a savior. But the Corinthian church was apparently composed more of Gentile believers who had more of a problem with incorporating their old pagan worship practices like ritual sex with temple prostitutes (see 6:15-16), getting raging drunk (11:21), and ecstatic spiritual hysteria (see chapter 14) into their new Christian faith, not holier-than-thou boasting or legalism. So his advice to them is much more practical and directed towards rebuking their various abuses of the gospel.

I've realized that I'm not necessarily opposed to the gospel being presented as information or a series of propositions; with the nature of language, this is unavoidable to some degree. What I am opposed to is thinking that we can fully capture the "essence" of the gospel in all its richness of meaning and implications with one presentation or style. We read Romans like good Protestants and think that it depicts the pure, unadulterated, raw gospel without realizing that it is already contextualized to people under the law. So instead of contextualizing the gospel to people with other backgrounds and problems, we try to contextualize them to fit our Procrustean-bed gospel by trying to find how they are seeking their own righteousness by a law of some kind for them to be set free from, even when this narrative is a stretch.

Morgan Guyton provides some thoughts of this in his post on evangelism (which, as usual, I highly recommend you read), saying:
In a post-Christendom world, it makes no sense to talk about non-Christians “knowing [anything] to be true” about a “day of giving an account.” The problem is that the formulaic proselytism of Southern Baptists doesn’t have anything to say to someone who, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t give a flip about the concept of Judgment Day (like the cynical European journalist interviewing the pope)"
And later, he clarifies that this kind of justification-on-judgment-day evangelism is really most effective when preaching to Christians, or other similarly moralistic people. When we make it our method of winning nonbelievers, though, it may serve better to push people away from God.
In the old Christendom order, it sort of worked. When everyone was nominally a Christian, you could preach hellfire sermons and get the nominal Christians to come down for the altar call to become “real” Christians (perhaps for the third or fourth time). But in post-Christendom, it doesn’t work anymore to warn strangers about the scary God that the world has stopped believing in. Too many people have seen that scary God create scary Christians who don’t act at all like Jesus. And you can’t blame earthquakes or invasions of foreign imperial armies on God’s wrath anymore.
I worry that in our evangelism, we often address only peoples' minds (or rather, our minds, by trying to formulate a gospel presentation that jumps through all the requisite doctrinal hoops of correctness) while leaving their hearts and imaginations hungry. In our zeal to guard God's (or is it our?) holiness, we depict God in a way that most modern people want nothing to do with—and if they they reject Him, we simply chock it up to "the god of this age" blinding their minds (2 Cor 4:4), without considering that this blinding might be occurring through our misguided proselytizing.

If we make preaching the gospel about using the right method, or hitting on the right talking points, or getting the right results, we may find that it is no longer the true gospel that we're preaching. In his preaching Paul became "all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." (9:22) He truly believed the gospel was a transformative message that applied to everyone: Jew and gentile, weak and strong, slave and free; but his message to each of these groups may have been quite different. "Preaching the gospel", far from being a simple learning and compelling regurgitation (how many times have you heard those two words together) of doctrinal facts pertaining to salvation, may require real humility, creativity, and a willingness to live with and understand diverse people to truly win them over.

But this is all very easy for me to say since I have the opposite problem; that is, taking the above warnings too seriously and getting scared out of preaching the gospel to anyone. And once again I reveal my tendency to write to others and not to myself. I pray for the heart of Paul as he said, "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16) I pray that I would really get the gospel in a truly transformative way as the early church did, such that I can't keep it from overflowing into my life and relationships. That it would break out of its box of simply being that omnipresent term that evangelicals constantly throw around and come to define me.

I'm going to try to start a discussion yet again:

  • How would you describe "the gospel" to yourself?
  • What do you think of my conclusion that the law/righteousness narrative of the gospel is not its definition, but an application of it? Do you think we can be too inflexible in how we present it?
  • What obstacles do you see put in the way of the gospel that you wish could be removed?

Addendum: I should at least mention the two posts I did for my church's men's group on contextualizing the gospel: One Two

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Not the post I intended to write

I've been working for weeks on a massive post. It originally began as two posts—one on "worldview" thinking in the church and overly intellectualized spirituality, and one about "divine restlessness" as a way of maintaining an appropriate level of certainty and epistemological humility in our beliefs—that I decided were similar enough to merge together. Though it covered fairly well-traded ground, it was going to be excellent, brilliant, insightful, and convicting; the usual.

That post will probably never see the light of day.

I still agree with most of the things I said in it, and I may try to work some of them into future posts. But as I was finishing up, it became harder and harder to right. God was convicting me not about what I was writing, but about how and why I was writing it, using the words I was writing. He was pulling a Romans 2:1 on me.

Yesterday I realized that since its renaissance in February through June, I have been taking this blog in the wrong direction, and my output has suffered as a result. A strong theme in my posts this year has been that the Bible is not simply a source of information to make us smarter and should not be read as such, but rather it's supposed to transform us. Once I realized this, I started seeing the misuse of scripture in this way—people simply drawing conclusions they wanted from it to back up their own arguments—everywhere. Everywhere except in my own writing.

The truth is, I've still been mining conclusions I've already drawn out of scripture instead of being informed by it. Too often I've written with my voice instead of seeking to let God speak through my own words. This question of who's really talking is independent of whether I study the Bible with my old logical view or my new Christ-as-Word view. Either can be a high or a low view of scripture. I've changed how I read the Bible, but not how I use it. I still treat it like an object of study to be held up to the light and analyzed for talking points in order to speak to and act on others rather than the Word of God that primarily speaks to and acts on me.

The result of this is that instead of this blog representing a conversation with God and with others, often it has just been the outflow of my train of thought on my solitary quest for truth—a noble delusion! I write about whatever I'm worked up about, annoyed at, or catches my fancy instead of what God is doing in me and saying to me right now. Though my thinking about doubt was this six months ago, He's calling me to move on now, but I keep posting about the same things as a way of staying in my comfort zone and avoiding letting God continue to lead me through my writing. The more I linger, the emptier and more forced my posts feel.

My conclusion (and it's one I still can't hear enough): the Bible is not merely a "text" to be studied, it is the Word of God to be lived. If we do study it, we should do so with the earnestness and immediacy of a man on a sinking ship studying the instructions for a life raft.