Christianity 201

December 22, 2012

What Can I Do Next? versus What Must I Do Next?

Ephesians 2: 8-9

(KJV) For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.

(AMP) 8 For it is by free grace (God’s unmerited favor) that you are saved (delivered from judgment and made partakers of Christ’s salvation) through [your] faith. And this [salvation] is not of yourselves [of your own doing, it came not through your own striving], but it is the gift of God; Not because of works [not the fulfillment of the Law’s demands], lest any man should boast. [It is not the result of what anyone can possibly do, so no one can pride himself in it or take glory to himself.]

(MSG) 8-9   Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing!

Earlier this week I had a conversation with someone who is moving from passive to active faith. I use that terminology because I don’t believe that his faith was non-existent prior to the past year, but rather, it was probably dormant.

So he asked about things like what is required in terms of tithing, and does he need to be baptized. I tried to give him good answers while at the same time being very aware of the fact he was wanting to do things instead of resting on what Christ has already done.

(Sometimes people coming from a Roman Catholic background wrestle with these things more acutely. I don’t know if that’s the case here. It’s interesting that the Catholic Church refers to certain days in the church calendar as “Days of Obligation.” In a sense this defines “religion;” the idea of obligation overshadowing all else. No wonder many Christians say that Christianity isn’t a religion it’s a relationship.)

Andy Stanley talks about surveys done among people who have been attending North Point Community Church for less than five weeks. Let’s just stop there. Imagine having enough new people constantly streaming through the doors that you can engage a survey company to ask them questions. But that’s a topic for another day.

Of those in that category, a large percentage of them were interested in what they call “discerning next steps.” They wanted to grow. They wanted to serve. They wanted to understand what it means to be a disciple.

But there are sometimes dangers inherent in wanting to do. The story of Mary and Martha is a juxtaposition of two attitudes: spending time with Jesus and doing things for Jesus.

Coincidentally, it is Andy Stanley who has this verse posted in his office from Acts 15:

(NIV) 19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.

(AMP) 19 Therefore it is my opinion that we should not put obstacles in the way of and annoy and disturb those of the Gentiles who turn to God…

We discussed this verse in detail previously here in February, 2011.

I think there are two different ways we approach the challenge of what it means to follow Christ:

  • We can ask, “What can I do;” and thereby focus on offering our lives as a response to the grace we have received and the love that has been poured out to us. “How can I express my gratitude?” “I want to give something back.”
  • We can ask, “What must I do;” and thereby miss the point. “What is this going to cost me?” “What am I going to have to give up?”  Or even, “I have a few hours free; how long is this going to take?”

As we said in the Feb ’11 post, this journey of following Christ should certainly involve counting the cost. In Luke 9 we read:

(NIV) 23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

But I do not believe it should be about the cost.

The person I spoke with definitely should start a program of percentage giving and definitely should consider being baptized. But it should be done joyfully and willingly.

 

 

 

 

December 3, 2012

Describing Christ-Following in terms of The Narrow Road

Almost exactly a year ago we visited the Orthodox blog written by Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things. That’s our source for today’s excellent post The Narrow Road. You can read it here, but you’re encouraged to click the title and read it at source.

There is a small collection of Christ’s sayings that center on the topic of the “narrow road.” The heart of the topic is that the way into the kingdom of God is difficult and very few will find it. The sayings are troubling.

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14)

So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen (Matthew 2o:16).

Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to will, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24).

“And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”  When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:24-26).

The sayings are troubling because we think about the Kingdom of God in a passive manner. Heaven has become forensic – a legal reward for a life that meets the religious/moral requirements. These verses seem to indicate that the standard requirement might be quite strict and that very few will qualify.

Narrow RoadIn such a forensic model – the problem lies within the standard. God is looking for a “few, good men.” Deeper than the standard – the problem lies within God. In this model, we have been created by a very strict God, exacting in His demands, unwilling to yield to the weaknesses of human nature. Not just the universe, but the God behind the universe is stacked against us. Who then can be saved?

The difficulties presented by these sayings reveal difficulties with the Kingdom of God when it is misunderstood in a forensic or legal manner. If the Kingdom of God is just one more thing that we get into – in which simply being-there-as-a-reward is the point – the gospel becomes rather pathetic and the God behind it, alarming.

The way into the Kingdom is difficult, the path narrow, because the way itself is actually difficult and the path is actually narrow. These things are not true because God wants it to be hard for us to enter the Kingdom – they are hard on account of the nature of the spiritual disease that afflicts us.

No one is surprised to be told that the path to the remission of their cancer will be difficult (generally we are simply glad to hear that there is any path at all!). Nor do we blame the doctor for the difficulty of our treatment.

The spiritual disease (sin) that afflicts us stikes at the very fiber of our humanity, the very mode of our being. St. Paul describes sin as corruption (φθορὰ), a word that essentially means “rot.” It is what happens when the process of death works in us unchecked. Death corrupts us, body, soul and spirit.

The teaching of the New Testament is not about how to be admitted to paradise – it is about how to become the kind of human who can actually live in paradise. Paradise is not a moral achievement – it is an ontological change.

I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit incorruption. (1Co 15:50)

The life of change and healing (being transformed from glory to glory into the image of Christ) is the narrow way. The borders of the road are marked with radical honesty and a willingness to endure and engage whatever is required for the transformation. We move from the fragmentation of our individual life towards the integration and wholeness of life in Christ, characterized by the fullness of self-emptying love. This is the life of grace – but grace can be painful and will take us down the difficult path. St. Paul was knocked off a horse and blinded by grace. Works would be easier!

Christ is quite clear about the narrow path – there are very few who find it. The conversion of Christianity from the narrow path to world-wide religion is the elevation of the wide-road of destruction to the place of a false salvation. The Christianity of ideas and arguments, entertainment as worship, morality as asceticism, is the path found by the many. It is an adaptation and misuse of certain ideas associated with Christ. It was not created by saints nor built on the blood of martyrs. It will run continue until its cultural usefulness has run its course. It will serve as an inoculation for many – making them immune to the grace of the narrow way. They will want nothing to do with Christianity.

If this is true, will only a few be saved?

In this lifetime, only a few will be saved. Only a few will live a life of self-emptying love. Only a few will endure the humiliation of honesty. Only a few will face the despair of hell and give thanks. Only a few will forgive everyone for everything.

Christ said that with men this is impossible. The very few who walk this path are living proof of the existence of God – for with God this path is possible. In Orthodoxy, we call these few, “saints.” They are signposts and an assurance that our own struggles are never wasted. The narrow path is not a delusion – it is an awakening.

If only a few are saved in this lifetime – will many be saved beyond? The gospel contains a paradox on this very matter. As clearly as Christ teaches that the way is narrow and that very few find it, He also clearly teaches a universal proclamation of the good will of God.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:16-17).

In the words of St. Peter:

“God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to eternal life” (2 Peter 3:9).

The paradox rests between the few and the all. The temptation for many has been to reinvent Christianity as a religious shortcut for the all. In the shortcut, the narrow way is lost, and with it, the saints. One of the desert fathers said, “Prayer is struggle ’til a man’s dying breath.” This is the truth about true prayer (and true salvation) – but now we are told not only how easy prayer is, but even how easy it is to hear God (cf. When God Talks Back). On the narrow path most of the time is marked by silence.

Nevertheless, the paradox remains. I am confident of the good will of God and that His desire for all will be fulfilled in the mystery of His love. But to create a false paradise – a Christianity of the all in which no one is saved – is the path of destruction.

Strive to enter at the narrow door.

~ Fr. Stephen Freeman

February 26, 2011

Selwyn Hughes on the Hard Sayings of Jesus


” ‘Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offence at him.”  ~ Matthew 13: 56-67 

So many churches proclaim only half the gospel — the attractive half. It is true that our Lord is risen from the dead and offers peace, joy, and the promise of heaven to those who believe, but there is another side to the gospel — a side which regrettably in some sections of the Church is being played down.

I refer to some of our Lord’s sayings which seem to turn general ideas about life on their head, like dying in order to live, losing in order to find, going down in order go up, freedom in the midst of slavery, success through failure, and so on. Many Christians sidestep these issues and focus instead on more appealing ideas, like the prosperity gospel, healing for all, obtaining heaven now, etc.  When we ignore what have been called “the hard sayings of Jesus,” we end up with a form of Christianity that has little cutting edge and is devoid of power. Focusing only only on the attractive part of the gospel may fill the pews, but it leaves the heart half empty.

Now, as the more appealing truths of the gospel — comfort, rest, peace, joy, etc. — are so widely known and so well expounded, we need not make them our focus.  …Meditate with me on the less appealing but equally important truths, the knowledge of which will add depth and meaning to our discipleship. Someone has said that “it is only as we grapple that we grow.”

I think one reason the less attractive things are ignored or overlooked is because the hard sayings of Jesus contain thoughts and ideas that challenge our self-centeredness and cut deep into our carnal nature. Indeed, so contrary are our Lord’s principles to fallen human nature that at times they appear downright offensive. Take this for example: “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:22). Or this statement made to the Syro-phoenician woman: “Let the children first be fed, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27 RSV). These hard sayings of Jesus (and there are many more) present us with tough issues that we have to wrestle with in order to fully comprehend them.

Those who prefer to settle for a comfortable kind of religion prefer what theologians call “the comfortable words of the gospel,” such as “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). What we must learn however is that in grappling with the seemingly hard and offensive sayings of Christ, we come up against important issues which strike at those things which encumber our lives and prevents us from being the kind of disciples Christ wants us to be. If we refuse to face these issues then, although we may call ourselves Christians, we cannot really call ourselves disciples.

~Selwyn Hughes, Every Day With Jesus (Sept 1/2 readings, 1992)

February 7, 2011

Erring on the Side of Grace

In addition to having my feet firmly planted in two local churches, I’ve also been “attending” Andy Stanley’s church online every Sunday at 6:00 PM for the past six months.   This week, Andy preached from Acts 15:

12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:

16 “‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’–
18 things known from long ago.

19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.

Verse 19, the last verse is one that Andy says he has posted on the wall of his office.   In typical Andy Stanley style — you should listen to the podcast* if possible — he contrasted verse 19 with churches and organizations that try to put people in a box, or try to line people up with a specific church policy or regulation.

Or ask people to “clean up” first.

This is easy to say, but harder to do.  Most of us are Pharisees at heart.

The Message Bible renders verse 19 as:

We’re not going to unnecessarily burden non-Jewish people who turn to the Master.

Do I agree with Andy’s take in this particular sermon?

I think this is an issue where, like so many other things in scripture, there is a balance point to be found somewhere in the middle.  There is an equally compelling argument for calling people to weigh the price and launch out into something that is costly, or difficult.  Consider John 6:

56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit[e] and life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

In Matthew 16, Mark 8 and Luke 9 we read these familiar words:

Luke 9: 23 (NLT) Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me.

And yet we are often so quickly reminded of Matthew 11:30

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Can both sets of verses be true at the same time?   Or is each referring to something different?


One of the best articles I’ve ever seen that summarizes the contrast is a little booklet by Stuart Briscoe titled This is Impossible.  If anyone knows where the text is uploaded I’d love to link to it here.  In the meantime, here’s a short summary by Adrian Rogers.

UPDATE: The book is available as a free .pdf download from Stuart’s ministry, Telling the Truth.

*The Andy Stanley sermon should appear here as a free download for a week, it’s the February 6th message, which I think is part four or five of the “Big Church” series.

Verses cited are NIV2011 unless otherwise indicated.