Hugh Hefner, Harvey Weinstein, Me and You

There is disgust and outrage at the recent public revelations of Hollywood Mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexually predatory patterns of behavior, and rightly so. The things he has been accused of doing to women are immoral and illegal, and now he is now reaping what he has sown. This is right and just.  As Paul told the Galatians (6:7), we are fools to ignore the fact that there is a moral order to the universe and that a holy God is this universe’s source and sovereign.

In our fragmented culture there is a tendency to view everything through partisan eyes and to use news stories like this one to keep score. Some of the people who excused the sexually predatory patterns of behavior of Donald Trump as “locker room talk” and “boys just being boys” when they were publically revealed during the Presidential Campaign, are now some of the loudest voices condemning Democrat benefactor Harvey Weinstein just as some of the people who were publicly outraged by President Trump’s sexually charged accounts of his behavior were not similarly outraged when President Clinton’s sexual transgressions were revealed. This politicization of our moral sensitivities is a moral outrage in and of itself!

The things that are morally wrong and outrageous when political and social progressives do them, are the same things that are morally wrong and outrageous when political and social conservatives do them, and I believe this because the standard of morality, the sense of right and wrong that serves as my moral compass, is not something that I have subjectively selected by looking into my own self-centered and self-seeking heart but that has rather been objectively established by a God who speaks and shows Himself in time and space. I believe that it is the Law that takes the moral measure of both me and the world, and that the moral crisis of this, and every moment, is the Genesis 3:1-7 strand of rebellion to what God says is “holy, right, and good” (Romans 7:12) that’s woven deeply into our spiritual DNA as human beings.   “Did God really say?” (Genesis 3:1) is the pivot on which I believe morality turns.  Has God told us what He expects of us as human beings, or are we left to our own devices?

Hugh Hefner died at the end of September, and most of the national news reports of his passing that I heard, surprisingly – at least to me – eulogized him as a “good” man.  Now, let me go on record and say that I didn’t know him personally.  And while I am personally familiar with his work, I certainly didn’t know his heart.  But using the Gospel’s – “you will know them by their fruits” – criteria (Matthew 7:16), I’m not sure that “good” is the word that I would have used to describe Hugh Hefner. “Rich” – to be sure. “Famous” – without a doubt. “Influential” – certainly!  Even – “iconic” — culturally “defining.” But “good”?  Probably not.

In Christian College I had a professor who, when I’d say “I’m good” in response to his frequent question about how I was doing, would always tell me – “I wasn’t looking for a moral judgment!”  You see, that word “good” has moral implications, and traditionally minded Jews and Christians, not to mention Muslims, would all agree that the moral content of what’s “good” gets defined for us by the character and the command of God.

Part of what it means when I as a Christian address God as “holy” is my acknowledgement that I believe that He has some clear expectations for my behavior as an individual, and for our behavior as a society, and that as our Maker, God has every right to have these moral expectations and to make these moral demands on us.  It is His world after all – we “live in His house” – and so He gets to make the rules.  Fortunately, the rules He makes for us are neither arbitrary nor oppressive.  In fact, they actually serve my well-being individually, and promote the “common welfare” for our society at large.  As the late Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel put it –

God gave us his laws to protect us.   People so often view the Law of God in such a wrong way – condemning and restricting – rather than as something that brings beneficial and enjoyable results.  In reality, violating God’s Law brings sorrow, misery, hopelessness, and despair.

When I individually, and when we collectively, fail to live up to God’s expectations as they find expression in the Law, not only is God displeased, but I find that I am being self-destructive and that we are undermining the “common good.”

In an order for Morning Prayer that I often use, I make this petition –

Imprint upon our hearts such a dread of thy judgments,
and such a grateful sense of thy goodness to us, as may make
us both afraid and ashamed to offend thee.

“Afraid” and “ashamed.” That’s what I inwardly feel whenever I transgress the Law of God.  When I do things that God has told me not to do, and when I fail to do things that God has told me to do, there is guilt, and there is shame.  Guilt because of what I have, or have not actually done.  And shame because of who I have become when viewed from the vantage point of who I was created to be.  And that gap widens with every choice I make and with every action I take that rejects what God has told us is “good.”

The power of the Gospel, on the personal level, is that the saving work of God in Jesus Christ, to borrow the language of a familiar hymn, is of sin the double cure.” It saves “from wrath and makes me pure.” The Gospel “saves from wrath,” which is God’s inner opposition to anything that is, or to anyone who is “hostile or indifferent to His will.”  This is the result of the rebellion of our sin in the heart of God – it displeases Him and thereby creates a barrier between us.  The cross of Christ removes this hindrance (Ephesians 2:14-18; Hebrews10:19-22).  Furthermore, the Gospel “makes me pure,” which has to do with my own sense of self–identity and self-worth that gets damaged when I behave in ways that are less than that for which I was made.  The Gospel deals with the shame of this as well by restoring me to my true status and standing as a child of God.  In the language of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it brings me back to “my senses” (Luke 15:17).

A preacher in chapel in Christian College told us that we should stop excusing our bad behavior by always saying that we are “only human” when we sin. “No,” he said, “When we sin we are actually being less than human.” There is a dignity and grandeur to our humanity in the “original goodness” of Creation, nothing diminished or debased about it at all.  It’s only in Genesis chapter 3, with the story of the fall, that this changes and the shine on our humanity gets tarnished.  The rebellion of our sin not only separates us from God, it also separates us from our own true selves, and it is in the saving work of Christ by which we become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17-21) that we are “born again” so that we can walk in “newness of life” – becoming who we were always meant to be.

So, what does any of this have to do with Hugh Hefner and Harvey Weinstein?

Well, Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” involved a conscious rejection of what God tells us is right and good.  It removes the good gift of our sexuality (read the Song of Solomon to get an accurate perspective on the Bible’s view of sex) from the proper context of consensual, monogamous, permanent, and covenantal relationships. Hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence), promiscuity, and a lack of reverence for the personhood of women are just some of the more blatant ways that the “Playboy Philosophy” has shattered lives and caused painful injury to people. And for a picture of what this looks like we need look no further than the sordid stories of how Harvey Weinstein related to women for decades.

My theologically traditional friends are all pretty clear about the way that the “Playboy Philosophy” damages us as individuals by reducing us to our urges and by encouraging a self-serving permissiveness while my progressive friends are all equally clear about how the “Playboy Philosophy” damages society by degrading women and commoditization of sex. And as a Christian whose faith is consciously being formed and informed by a continuing engagement with Scripture, I’ve got to say that I think they’re both right because this is all clear.

Chuck Smith started Calvary Chapel in Southern California in the mid-1960’s, and he described its ministry in those early days as being a field hospital where the casualties of the sexual revolution came to be treated with God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance in Jesus Christ. He explained –

The misuse of our sexuality is a cause-and-effect proposition. God says, “If you do these things, then you’re going to hurt yourself and others.”  I want people to learn the wisdom of the Law of God: God isn’t trying to keep us from having a great time; God’s trying to protect is from calamity.  Sometimes when I’m driving on the freeway and somebody recklessly cuts in on me, I feel tremendously angry.  My temptation is to lean on the horn and shake my fist at the jerk.  After all, he’s endangering my life and the lives of my grandchildren with me, and even his own life.  I want to protest loudly. 

But then as God deals with those feelings, He replaces them with prayer: “O God, help us all get home safely. People like that guy are crazy.  It’s only a matter of time before they’re going to hurt someone if they continue like that, so Lord, please get us and him home safely.”

And when I see the devastation, the wreckage, that sexual promiscuity has wrought, again I want to scream” “You fools! Don’t you know that you’re going to hurt yourselves and those around you?  Can’t you see that we’ll all lose if you keep on like that?”  But again, God calms me down and replaces my frustrated cry with a prayer: “Lord, they’re crazy.  They’re going to hurt somebody.  Help them to get home safely.  And help me to show them the way.”

For many of us, one of the greatest sources of our personal shame and guilt is our sexual history. I don’t know anybody, preachers included, who wouldn’t be mortified if the ways that sin has distorted our own sexuality and damaged our sense of self should ever come to light.  We are all ashamed, and we are all guilty. Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” says that the best way to rid yourself of these feelings of shame and guilt is to rid yourself of any repressive thoughts or beliefs that would restrict the free expression of your sexual desires. “If it feels good, do it” is how the old slogan of the sexual revolution went.  Hugh Hefner was its chief promoter and Harvey Weinstein is its most current poster child.

In contrast, the traditional teaching of Christianity is that the right way to deal with our guilt is to get it forgiven, and the right way to deal with our shame is to be changed. As A.W. Tozer used to say, we all need to be “saved from,” and we all need to be “saved to.”  We all need to be “saved from” the damaged and damaging patterns of our distorted sexualities.  And we all need to be “saved to” lives that are being transformed in ways that better reflect God’s original creative intent for us.  Christians are not perfect people, but we are people in whom the trajectory of our lives is moving towards wholeness in every dimension, including our sexuality. DBS +

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“I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed…”

A Protestant Minister’s Confession on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation        _______________________________________________________________

The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation will be observed on Tuesday, October 31st.  This was the day in 1517 when Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk, launched his part of Protestant Reformation by nailing a series of 95 theological statements to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg, Germany, calling for the church to look closely at her life and faith and to make any changes necessary in order to be more thoroughly Biblical.

I am a Protestant Christian by conviction and practice. I believe that when the Bible takes the measure of the church’s life and faith, that the Church will of necessity be “reformed and constantly reforming.” But in this continuous process of reflection, repentance, and renewal, I believe that we who are Protestants have not always been gracious to, or completely honest about, the faith and practices of our Catholic mothers and fathers in history, or of our Catholic brothers and sisters in the church just down the street now.

At the summer 2005 School for Spiritual Directors that I attended at the Pecos Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico I was asked as a Protestant minister to share in a Service of Reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Abbot of that community. We both made brief statements about our history of false witness against the other, and then we offered prayers of confession for the ways that our spiritual tradition had sinned against the other.

In my own denominational tradition of not thinking that me and mine are the only Christians, but that we just want to be “Christians only,” few moments have had greater power than that evening at the monastery when “separated brethren” were reconciled and stood together in unity, if only for that brief moment in time.  But that moment was enough to convince me that this is what God in Christ truly wants, and for which we who name Him as Lord must constantly strive.  In the interest of that eagerness “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” to which we are called (Ephesians 4:3), I offer here my statement and prayer from that Service of Confession and Reconciliation at Pecos in 2005 as a way of building a bridge on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation when what so many will be talking and thinking about are the walls that divided us then, and that still keep us apart now.   DBS +

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A Reflection for the Ecumenical Service of Reconciliation
Pecos Benedictine Monastery ~ Summer 2005

In a class on the book of Revelation that I took when I was a student in Christian College in the early 1970’s I was shown photographs of the Vatican with all the Cardinals in their scarlet robes, and I was told that this was evidence that the Pope was the antichrist and that the Roman Catholic Church was the great harlot on the seven hills, Babylon, clothed in purple and scarlet and adorned with gold and jewels (Revelation 17). In doing this, my professor was simply following the lead of one of the founders of my denomination, Alexander Campbell, who in 1837 debated Bishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio, on the spiritual claims of Roman Catholicism. Alexander Campbell argued seven propositions in his debate with Bishop Purcell –

 1.  Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church was not then, nor had it ever been “holy, catholic, or apostolic.”

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I apologize for such an ignorant and arrogant suggestion, and affirm that as Catholics and Protestants together we are part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

2.  Alexander Campbell argued that the notion of apostolic succession has no Biblical, logical, or historical validity.

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I apologize for the disrespect of such a statement and affirm that the preservation of apostolic Christianity by the episcopacy, the canon, and the creeds is a gift we all share and from which we all benefit.

3.  Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church is neither uniform in faith nor united in membership.

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I apologize for the way that this accusation was directed at you alone while completely ignoring the scandal of division within Protestantism, and I join you in praying for the unity of Christ’s whole church.

4.  Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church was “the Babylon of John, the ‘Man of Sin’ in Paul, and the Empire of the Little Horn of Daniel’s Sea Monster.”

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I recognize the fear and prejudice involved in such sectarian misinterpretations of the Bible’s prophetic symbols, and reject the way they have been used to demonize and dismiss you.

5.  Alexander Campbell argued that many of the things that the Roman Catholic Church has taught – purgatory, indulgences, auricular confession, the priestly remission of sins, transubstantiation – are spiritually immoral and injurious.

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I admit that we have often spoken against beliefs and practices that you hold sacred from our own ignorance and misunderstanding, and I pledge myself to loving dialogue about, rather than malicious mischaracterization of any matter of Christian faith and practice where our convictions and perspectives may vary.

6.  Alexander Campbell argued that we Protestants have the Bible independent of the Roman Catholic Church’s stewardship of the written Word of God.

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, and in contrast to his perspective, I gratefully acknowledge that the Bible I love so much as a Protestant was in fact placed in my hands by your faithful preservation, provision, and proclamation of its truths through the centuries, and as the lamp unto our feet, I pray that it will lead us into unity and truth.

7.  And finally, Alexander Campbell argued that the Roman Catholic Church’s claim to infallibility rendered it unsusceptible to reformation.

As one of Alexander Campbell’s spiritual descendants, I bear witness to the way that the Word and the Spirit continue to work in and through our different churches – breaking down false barriers, healing old divisions, leading us to new understandings, creating common appreciation for shared truths, and drawing us even closer to that unity of the Body of Christ that is God’s gift and our calling.

crossA Prayer of Protestant Confession – John 17: 20-24
An Ecumenical Reconciliation Service
Pecos Benedictine Monastery ~ Summer 2005
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O God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all; Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, prayed on the night before His atoning death on Calvary’s cross that we who would one day believe in Him through the word of His Apostles might be one so that the world could believe that You had sent Him.  The unity of the church was to be the key to the effectiveness of our mission.

O God, forgive us.

We Protestants have been so preoccupied with out “protests” of Catholic teachings, Catholic practices, Catholic traditions and Catholic interpretations that we have neither heard nor heeded Christ’s simple prayer, to our spiritual impoverishment and to the world’s spiritual detriment.  Our earnest proclamation of your unconditional love made visible and tangible in Jesus Christ has suffered a serious loss of credibility because of our mistrust of Catholic Christians and our misunderstanding of Catholic Christianity.

And so, tonight God, I confess as a representative Christian and churchman that we who are Protestants have sinned against the intention of Christ for the unity of His people by the things that we’ve thought, said and done to our Catholic brothers and sisters throughout the centuries.

  • We’ve harbored uncharitable thoughts about the sincerity and spiritual sensibilities of our Catholic brothers and sisters’ devotion to You; Why, sometimes we’ve even gone so far as to wonder whether or not Catholics are even Christians!

O God, forgive us.

  • We’ve publicly ridiculed Catholic traditions, maliciously mocked Catholic practices and openly questioned Catholic faithfulness.

O God, forgive us.

  • And too many times these uncharitable thoughts and unkind words have issued in actions of hatred and violence entirely inconsistent with your loving kindness. We’ve desecrated Catholic sanctuaries; persecuted Catholic communities; martyred Catholic clergy and laity; and urged wars of religion using Scripture as our justification.

O God, forgive us.

Here tonight, in this place, with these people, Protestants and Catholics in loving community together, help us all to hear and heed the prayer of Jesus Christ our common Lord and Savior. Touch our heads and hearts to see that our unity as Your people is not going to come about by trying to convert the other to our own settled convictions and faithful practices, but rather will be the precious fruit of our common confession of Jesus Christ as Your only begotten Son, our only Lord and Savior, and by our common possession of Your indwelling and empowering Spirit, freely and fully given to us all.

On this mountain, in this hour, may we experience the genuine miracle of brothers and sisters, Protestants and Catholics, dwelling together in unity, and thereby, blessing the whole world as it is promised (Psalm 133). Let the world see us, and believe. We ask this Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, to your honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.  

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“Crystal Ball Polishers” and the Blessed Hope

“Crystal Ball Polishers” and the Blessed Hope

The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
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Titus 2:11-13

meadeDavid Meade, a “Christian Numerologist,” recently predicted that the “Rapture” was scheduled for Saturday, September 23.  Now, the “Rapture” is the belief of some Christians – many of them right here in Texas – that Jesus Christ will secretly remove the church from the world before the Tribulation, the final period of human testing before the Second Coming and Final Judgment, begins.  The “Rapture” is not the Second Coming itself, but is rather just a prelude to it. This is a fine point of distinction in the minds of many.  Most hear “Rapture,” and think – the Second Coming and the end of the world. Eschatological (the study of last things) details and distinctions blend and blur in the popular imagination. And so, when David Meade said that the “Rapture” was Biblically scheduled for September 23rd, most people heard it as that’s when he thought that the world was going to end. When I heard him talk like this, it felt like déjà vu all over again for me.  And then, when it didn’t happen as he said that it would, and Mr. Meade began to make some quick recalculations to account for the delay, I felt like I had seen this movie before.

You see, a number of early Christian teachers believed that Jesus Christ would return in the year 500. Later, the year 1000 captured the end-times imagination of lots and lots of churchmen, just as the year 2000 did in our more recent past.  Joachim of Fiore, an Italian Catholic mystic, said that he believed that the world was going to end in 1260. Thomas Müntzer, an Anabaptist Reformation radical, said that he thought that the end-time events were all scheduled to begin in 1525. William Miller, an early Adventist, taught that Christ was coming back in October 1844, and Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that he believed that it would happen in 1874. The late Harold Camping, a well-known fundamentalist radio Bible teacher, said that he believed that Jesus was coming back in September of 1994.  And then, when it didn’t happen, he quickly recalculated and rescheduled the Second Coming for 2011.  Meanwhile, Edgar Whisenant, a rival radio Bible teacher, was just as sure that it was all going to happen in 1988.

There has been no shortage of predictions like these in the long history of the church.

earthWhen I was in high school, Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth was all the rage.  If you read the “Left Behind” series then you got in narrative form what Hal Lindsey taught in The Late Great Planet Earth. We carefully went through this book page by page, detail by detail at more than one of the Bible Studies that I attended back in the early 1970’s.  I know firsthand the sense of power — and relief — that comes from thinking that you’ve got some inside information about the impending end of the world.  But I also discovered pretty quickly in those days just how speculative these timetables of the last day can be, and just how ridiculous the arguments can become between those who hold rival theories about the proper sequence of the events at the end of time, and just how obnoxious some Christians can be about what they think is going to happen next.

The day I get left on a highway shoulder while my friend got a ride from a van full of Jesus People who sorted out the acceptable hitchhikers from the unacceptable ones by conducting a kind of roadside inquisition of the eschatological convictions and conclusions of those requesting a ride from them, was the day that I decided to consciously come at the Bible’s teachings about God’s future promises for the church and the world in a way that was different from all of the calculations, and speculations, and arguments that engaged so many of the Christians that I knew back then.

I certainly wasn’t prepared to jettison my belief in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ itself because of all the petty and pushy ways that I saw other Christians holding this doctrine. The New Testament was just too clear, and too insistent, about Christ coming again for me to be able to dismiss this whole idea as just being crazy, or merely symbolic, or of secondary importance.  George Eldon Ladd’s observation that Christ’s saving work will be forever incomplete apart from Christ’s personal, glorious, triumphal return was, and still is, pretty persuasive to me. “At the center of redemption past is Christ on the cross,” he used to say, “and at the center of redemption future is Christ returning in glory.” And so, without letting go of the content of Christianity’s cosmic hope as it finds its standard expression in the church’s historic Creeds – “I believe that He shall come again… with glory… to judge the quick and the dead… Whose kingdom shall have no end” – I did want to get beyond the timetables, charts, and arguments.  And it was the great St. Augustine who showed me how to do this.

saint“He who loves the coming of the Lord is not he who affirms it far off, nor is it he who says that it is near,” St. Augustine carefully explained, “It is he who, whether it be far or near, awaits it with sincere faith, steadfast hope, and fervent love.” This idea was further advanced in me by Dr. William Richardson’s insistence when I was one of his students in Christian College that whenever the New Testament talks about the end times and Christ’s Second Coming, that it’s not to fuel speculation but rather to ground our hope and to promote our Christian living. “New Testament eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) is ethical” I often heard him say, and I think that’s right.  This is why every time the New Testament talks about the future tense of our salvation, it is immediately followed by an exhortation to faithfulness.

  • Jesus’ Olivet Discourse on last things in Matthew chapter 24 gets followed by the three parables of Matthew chapter 25: The parable of the ten wise virgins whose oil lamps were trimmed and ready for the bridegroom’s sudden arrival, and the ten whose lamps were not; the parable of the talents; and the parable of the sheep and the goats where we who are Christians are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, shelter the homeless, and visit the imprisoned. These are all “call to action” parables.
  • After his detailed discussion in I Thessalonians chapter 4 about what will happen when Christ comes back, in I Thessalonians chapter 5 Paul told the Thessalonian Christians to therefore keep awake and to be sober (v. 6), to consistently live and love as children of the light and not of the darkness.
  • And writing about the most end-times oriented book of them all in the New Testament, and perhaps in the entire Bible, Darrell Johnson explains – “No other book, in all of human literature, crystallizes what it means to belong to and follow Jesus in this world… Revelation is not a crystal ball revealing esoteric secrets that enable us to escape the harsh realities of life on earth, but a down-to-earth manual on how to be a disciple of Christ facing the harsh realities of life on earth; in particular, how to do this the way Jesus did and does.”

For this reason, in the past 40 years, whenever somebody like a David Meade has come along overconfidently announcing some newfangled speculative theory about how and when the end times are going to unfold, as if it were a self-evident truth and a well-established fact, my mind instantly goes back to the wisdom that Stephen Travis shared in his very fine little book – The Jesus Hope (IVP – 1974) –

Whenever the Bible speaks about the Second Coming its purpose is to challenge us to action. When the Biblical writers refer to it, their purpose is not to give us a detailed explanation of the doctrine, but rather to relate it to some practical needs… (92)

Respect for the natural world, love, community, justice – these are some of the values which the Christian vision of the future puts before us to aim at in human society…. The church is to be a sign of God’s kingdom, pioneering things which are God’s future intention for all people. This is what the church at its best has always been.  Who pioneered mass education?  Who pioneered hospitals?  Who pioneered the abolition of slavery?  In each case Christians played a leading role in causing progressive change… As a pioneer of progress towards the will of God, the church is a sign of the coming reality of God’s kingdom. (125)

The saddest feature of so many books about Christian hope is their failure to show how the hope of Christ’s return is supposed to affect lives right now.   Books that were written to comfort God’s people (Daniel and Revelation) in the face of vicious persecution, have become a happy hunting ground for religious extremists.  Instead of being sources of hope and encouragement, they have become objects of idle speculation… (80)

We want to know the date of Christ’s return. We want God to give us some infallible sign that his coming is just around the corner.  We want God to deal with our unanswered questions about the future. (106)

But Christian hope is not this kind of escapism. On the contrary, hope is a powerful motive for positive Christian living and for social change.  Christian hope is not for tickling our minds but for changing our lives and for influencing society. (7)

It is hope that drives Christians into situations of conflict and squalor, of injustice and inhumanity… It is hope that drives Christians to mission, to service and sacrificial love. (126)

JesusI’m not particularly interested in anybody’s pet theory about how and when Christ will return. In a startling confession of his own ignorance, Jesus told His disciples – “…of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36). It’s my hunch that if by accident some wild-eyed enthusiast just happened to get the date of the Second Coming right and then started widely publicizing it, that God would immediately change the date just to show us who’s really in charge and calling the shots!  No, what the New Testament tells us about God’s future for us, and for all of creation, is not so that we can form discussion groups where we can sit around all day arguing over our favorite speculative theories about the times and seasons that are fixed by God’s authority alone.  I think that the New Testament has a very different purpose in telling us about God’s future salvation.

It is reported that the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said that if he knew that the world was going to end tomorrow, that his duty today would still be to plant his garden and to collect the rent! The way we show our confidence in the promises that God makes in His Word about what’s coming for us and for all of creation tomorrow, is to start leaning by faith in the direction of the vision of that future with which we have been provided, and to start embodying its values right here and right now in this world where we live today.  We don’t need sensational announcements of impending doom.  What we need are hope-filled Christians making hope-shaped differences in the world informed by their hope-informed values and their hope-full vision of the future. DBS +

 

 

 

 

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The Good Confession and the Las Vegas Concert Shooting

The Good Confession and the Las Vegas Concert Shooting
“I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God…”

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 If Christian faith doesn’t have something more than confusion, anguish, or anger to say on a day like this one when more than 50 people are dead, and more than 400 people are being treated for their injuries from the biggest mass casualty shooting in modern American history, then maybe it’s time for a different kind of faith.

William James (1842 – 1910), the American philosopher and psychologist, in The Varieties of the Religious Experience (1902) observed that there are two broad categories of religion that are available to us as human beings, what he called “the religion of the healthy-minded” and that he described as the religion of people with “sky-blue souls whose affinities are with flowers, and birds, and enchanting innocencies,” and “a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering,” and what he called “the religion of the sick soul” and that he described as having a deep awareness of “the darker aspects of the universe,” a real “consciousness” of one’s own sin, and a recognition that there is a profound “sadness” at the heart of the human condition. Professor James left no doubt as to which of these two religions he’d personally embraced himself –

…Systematic healthy-mindedness, failing as it does to accord to sorrow, pain, and death any positive and active attention whatever, is formally less complete than systems that try at least to include these elements in their scope. The completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed.  Buddhism, of course, and Christianity are the best known to us of these.  They are essentially religions of deliverance: the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life.

Our “Good Confession” as Disciples that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God” is an affirmation of the way that we believe that God in Jesus Christ is providing our “deliverance.”  When bad things happen, be they mass shootings in Las Vegas or devastating storms in the Caribbean and along the Gulf Coast, it’s what the “living” God – that is, a God who is present and active – is doing in Jesus as the Christ that is God’s personal and powerful response to human suffering.  When we say that Jesus is the Christ what we are saying that He is God’s answer to life’s most urgent questions, and the solution to the most painful situations that we will face.

Alexander Campbell, following his, and our, Reformed theological heritage, employed something known as the “munus triplex” – Christ’s threefold office of Prophet, Priest, and King – when thinking and talking about the things that God has done for us in Jesus.

It was for us he became a Prophet, for us he became a Priest, for us he has been made Lord of hosts, King of the universe, Judge, and avenger of all. [Alexander Campbell – The Christian System – “The Lordship of the Messiah”].

This model is based on the Old Testament descriptions of who it was that got anointed to function as God’s special representatives for God’s first covenant people – prophets, priests, and kings. “Christ” is the Greek form of the Hebrew word “Messiah” which means the “anointed one.” Because prophets, priests, and kings all got anointed in the Old Testament, the Old Testament’s promise of the coming “Messiah,” or “Anointed One,” was understood to mean that He was coming to do the work of a prophet, and a priest, and a king.

The “munus triplex” says that God’s work of deliverance in Jesus the Christ moves through these three channels – He does the work of a priest for us, He does the work of a prophet for us, and He does the work of a king for us.  And today, in the aftermath of what happened on the Las Vegas strip last night, as people who say that we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, our response needs to correspond to what it is that we say that we believe God in Christ is actually doing to deliver us.

Because Jesus as the Christ does the work of a Priest to deliver us – our response to the suffering of this day must be pastoral.  The comfort that the Gospel offers people today is that God “gets” the pain of this moment because in Jesus Christ He has been here and gone through it Himself. “Jesus wept” is what John 11:35 tells us.  And more than just the answer to a familiar Bible riddle, these two words assure us today that we don’t have a God who is absent from our tragedies, or who is unaware of or unconcerned about the anguish that they cause in us.  Hebrews 4:15-16 is where my faith instinctively turns on morning’s after evenings like the one we’ve just had –

We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

And don’t fail to constantly keep in mind and heart where God’s identification with us in Jesus Christ wound up — on the cross –

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.  For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.  Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.  For because he himself has suffered when tested, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:14-18)

Being able to comfort ourselves and others with the Priestly presence work of Jesus as the Christ is part of what the Gospel enables us to do. The Gospel’s answer to human loss and suffering is Emmanuel – that “God is with us.” The Gospel’s assurance in the face of the evil of this day is that it can’t separate us from the love of God. The Gospel’s provision for us in the face of the world’s and our own brokenness is reconciliation and peace with God.  And the Gospel’s final solution to problem of death is the gift of eternal life.

Because Jesus as the Christ does the work of a Prophet to deliver us – our response to the suffering of this day must be prophetic.  We have the mind of Christ. Because of Jesus Christ we already know what it is that God wants for us and for all of creation, and we know that history is moving inexorably in that direction, the direction of shalom – harmony and perfect peace – everything and everyone fit together like the pieces of an intricate puzzle of a picture of personal well-being and cosmic thriving.  When the Kingdom finally comes in Revelation 21 and we are told that in that day tears will be wiped away from our eyes and death shall be no more, and neither shall there be any mourning, nor weeping, nor suffering, we are not being given permission to just sit around waiting for it to arrive like a bus at a stop or a train at a station, but rather, we are being commissioned to be harbingers of that future.  This morning this means doing more as a people to figure out what it means when God tells us that “Thou shalt not commit murder.” Lewis Smedes, one of the people who taught me ethics, said that this Divine command creates a clear predisposition for life within God’s covenant people.  Every conversation and consideration for us as Christians begins with us already knowing that life is God’s preferred option in each and every situation, and that this preference must inform all of our subsequent choices.  God didn’t want Stephen Paddock pulling that trigger.  God didn’t want all those people to die, or to suffer injury.  And God doesn’t want this world of terror and violence.  Being “prophetic” means saying these things loudly and clearly to ourselves, and to the world around us.  And then it means fostering the crucial conversations that lead to decisions about the public policies that best embody what it is that we already know as Christians that God wants.  I don’t know what the political solution to this current epidemic of violence in American society is, but I do know as a Christian that God is for life, and that God expects us to advocate for ways that promote and preserve life in a society that is becoming increasingly violent. The Prophetic work of Jesus as the Christ calls us to be prophetic as His disciples about the things He has shown us and told us are God’s will for us and for all of creation.

And because Jesus as the Christ does the work of a King to deliver us – our response to the suffering of this day must be to point to that Kingdom that is coming. Biblically, I see no solution to the world’s troubles apart from the promised return of Jesus Christ to finish the work of redemption and reconciliation that He began in the manger, on the cross, and out of the garden tomb.   To live in hope as a Christian is to live with the assurance of Philippians 1:6 that the good work that God has begun in us and in the world will be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.  In the Didache, an important second century manual of church practice, the exclamation of the Aramaic word “Maranatha” – loosely translated: “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” – appears to have been the final prayer of the church in the communion service.  Vernard Eller, the late Church of the Brethren scholar, suggested that “Maranatha” provides us with our most comprehensive understanding of what’s actually happening at the Lord’s Table.  He said that it means “Our Lord has come — He has already been here and shared our life,” and that it means “Lord, come right now — come to this place, in this moment, to be with us in the present journey of our lives,” and that it means “O Lord come again — return to us in the near future in final victory to establish your kingdom where there will be no more suffering or sadness, no more sickness or death.”  And that makes “Maranatha” as comprehensive a prayer as we can possibly pray as Christians.  When we pray “Maranatha” we are consciously remembering what Christ has already done.  And when we pray “Maranatha” we are consciously reminding ourselves of what it is that Christ is still doing right now. And when pray “Maranatha” we are consciously rooting ourselves in the Gospel’s promises of what Christ is going to do when His Kingdom finally and fully comes.  “Maranatha” is a comprehensive affirmation of, and petition for the deliverance of God in the kingly work of Jesus Christ.   When the world breaks our hearts as it does today, it is a “Maranatha” moment.  It is time for us to remember that Christ has come, that Christ is here, and that Christ will come again.  The death and violence of this day will not have the final word. “Maranatha” — “Come quickly Lord Jesus.” DBS +

 

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“Sticks and Stones… and the Words that Hurt…”

We are studying Ephesians on Sunday evenings at church. This time through Ephesians I have been waylaid by what Paul said about the things that “grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30).

 Oh, I know… I know… there is a substantial argument between scholarship and tradition about this claim of Paul’s authorship of Ephesians. I am more than familiar with its sound and fury. What I’ve personally concluded is that regardless of where you happen to come down on the actual question, Ephesians still internally claims to have been written by Paul (1:1), and Ephesians is still in the canon of the New Testament, meaning that it is still part of the critical grist for the mill of our faith and faithfulness.  So, I’m perfectly willing to give Paul credit for it, if for no other reason than to establish its apostolic credibility, thereby reaffirming the necessity of our having to deal with it as part of “the deposit of faith” (2 Timothy 1:14).

So, doing that, taking Ephesians seriously, let’s take just a moment and ponder the rather startling fact that we can actually “grieve” the Holy Spirit!  Do you mean that we can make God sad?  Do you mean that we can hurt God’s feelings? Do you mean that by our choices we can cause God to weep (Luke 19:41-44)?  What extraordinary vulnerability on God’s part, and what an astonishing power for us to possess as human beings!  God cares so much about the choices we make that when we disregard God’s standards for what’s right, and good, and holy, and just, God actually gets offended — or is it “wounded.” Whenever I read about the “wrath” of God in Scripture – and it’s in the Bible a whole lot more than most of us are prepared to admit – it’s this deep sense of divine disappointment in the choices that we are making that informs my understanding of the concept.  The way I see it, the wrath of God is as much about the ways that we make God sad as it is about the ways that we make God mad.  We can grieve the Holy Spirit.

Just a little bit later in Ephesians, Paul told his readers to keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit (5:18), and when you put these two Holy Spirit mandates from Ephesians together – the negative “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (4:30) with the positive “Keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit” (5:18) – the instrumentality of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in believers for the living of the Christian life begins to loom rather large in the critical conversation about what it means for us to be faithful Christians. In seminary one of my teachers talked often about the centrality of the Holy Spirit in New Testament ethics. “The Holy Spirit inwardly guides the behavior of believers,” he explained. “Christians should expect the Holy Spirit to show them what the right thing to do is in each circumstance and situation.” I understand this not in the sense that the Holy Spirit comes up with what is the good and right thing to do in each moment right there on the spot – a kind of ever-shifting situational ethic.  No, I believe that God has already shown us in the Law and the Prophets what is holy, just, right, and good (Romans 7:12; Matthew 22:34-40; Micah 6:8).  And so I find that how the Holy Spirit helps me in the moment is in the application of the letter of the content of the Law and the Prophets to the immediate context of the particular circumstances and situations of my life.  And in this internal Holy Spirit process that’s constantly going on inside me, I think that it’s my capacity to “yield” (Romans 6:12-19) that determines whether I wind up grieving the Holy Spirit, or being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Life is filled with very real choices. Christians who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ have made a commitment to process these choices with conscious and continuous reference to who it is that we know Him to be, and to what it is that we know Him to want of us, and from us.  This “knowing” of Christ and His purposes depends almost entirely on the Word and the Spirit.  The Word of Scripture is the trustworthy record of God’s self-disclosure in history – the how, and the when, and the where, and the what of God’s speaking and showing of Himself, first to Israel, and then in and through the life of the Apostolic church.  And the Spirit of God at work in the human heart is how these ancient stories and distant teachings get applied to our lives and circumstances today.

I experience God’s moral and spiritual demands as conscious choices, informed by Word and Spirit, to be made in each moment of my life. I can “yield” to what it is that I understand to be the “mind of Christ” in the choice that is to be made, or I can “yield” to the other pressures and influences in my life.  This is the whole frame of New Testament ethics.  It’s Adam or Christ, the old humanity or the new creation, the flesh or the Spirit in every single moral and spiritual choice that we must make as Christians, and the Spirit is the resource that we have been given to assist us in knowing and then doing the right, the just, the good, the “holy” thing in each and every situation.

Now, back to Ephesians and grieving the Holy Spirit…

When we “resist the Spirit” (Genesis 6:3; Acts 7:51) by refusing to yield to God’s wisdom in the moment of a decision (Acts 6:9-10), one of the results of that rebellion is that we wind up grieving the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 63:10).  And in Ephesians, in a place where Paul unpacked this idea with some specificity (4:17-5:20), it is simply startling to see how it is our speech – the things that we say – that so frequently grieves the Holy Spirit.

“…putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors…” (4:25)

 “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up,
as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (4:29)

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling
and slander
, together with all malice…” (4:31)

“Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk;
but instead, let there be thanksgiving.” (5:4)

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things
the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient.” (5:6)

Empty words… coarse talk… evil speech… angry outbursts… wrangling… slandering… false witness… In the moral instruction of Ephesians (4:17-5:20) Paul brought into particular focus how the things that we say are some of the more specific and most consistent ways that we cause the Holy Spirit grief, and this hit me with particular force while teaching Ephesians this time round. Because we always read the Bible in one hand while holding the newspaper in the other, I’m not really surprised that our sins of speech as a primary source of the Holy Spirit’s grief is something to which I would be particularly sensitive.

Just like you, I am terribly bothered by the tone of public discourse in our culture these days. And while it would be very easy for us to point an accusing finger exclusively in one direction or another as the singular source of the precipitous decline of civility in our culture, the fact of the matter is that a lack of respect seems to pervade our social discourse at every level and across all platforms. It’s not just that we disagree, it’s that we feel like we have to demean. It’s not that we feel the need to publicly take principled stands, it’s that we think that we have to mock those who have taken the opposite principled public stand. It’s not that we have our own settled convictions, it’s that we’ve become smug. We don’t want the open exchange of ideas, we want to shut the other side up. We’re outraged when somebody says something cruel about us or crass about what we think, but that certainly doesn’t stop us from hitting back just as hard with crass comments of our own about what they think and cruel words about who they are. It’s not that we’re passionate, it’s that we’re mean. I rarely come away from the point/counter-point postings of Facebook, or from watching the partisan propaganda of the cable news networks without feeling a deep sense of sorrow about the tone and content of how we are choosing to address one another across the cultural, racial, theological, political, social, and sexual divides that are ever widening at our feet. And if this grieves me, then what do you suppose it is doing to the Spirit of the living God?

It was the late George Mallone who said that while becoming a Christian is something that happens in an instant, with the initial decision of faith, that being a Christian is a long and hard process that unfolds only slowly over a long period of time. He quoted Chuck Swindoll’s observation that the renewal of a life is much like the remodeling of a home. It’s a project that always going to “take longer than you planned, cost more than you figured, that’s going to be messier than you anticipated, and that will require even greater determination than you ever expected.” The general contractor for this transforming work that’s going on inside of us as Christians is the Holy Spirit, and this is why the things that we say have such an effect on the Spirit. Jesus said –

The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45)

When our speech does not reflect the values of the Gospel or the vision of the kind of people that we are becoming in Christ, then the quality and extent of the work that the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts immediately becomes suspect. Our words grieve the Holy Spirit when they reveal hearts that are resistant to the change that the Holy Spirit is trying to engineer in them. So, listen carefully to what you are saying this week. If you hear Christ in your words, then that’s pretty good evidence of the work of God’s Spirit in you. But if what you hear when you speak is the sigh or sob of the Spirit instead, then that’s pretty good evidence that you are resisting the work of the Spirit in your heart, and that it’s breaking His. DBS +

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“To Know Jesus Christ More Intimately…”

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 “At Covenant, we believe a Seminary Education is successful only if – at its end–
the student knows Jesus Christ more intimately than at its beginning.”

This is the mission statement of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. This is a school that was, and still is intimately associated with the ministry and legacy of Francis Schaeffer, the teacher on whom I cut my theological teeth. I am not the same person that I was when I first started seriously reading Francis Schaeffer as a college freshman in 1971, but in many ways he set the theological table at which I still sit and from which I still feast, and I am deeply grateful for the ways that he first pushed my thinking, and for the ways that he continues to shape my believing.

Because of this connection, when I first saw this mission statement in an advertisement for Covenant Seminary in Christianity Today some 40 years ago, I immediately clipped it and pinned it to the cork board that I keep on the wall beside my desk.  I appreciated its clarity of purpose, and it wasn’t long before I found that I had adopted it, and adapted it to fit my own sense of personal mission.

 “My ministry will be successful only if – at its end – the people in my care
know Jesus Christ more intimately than they did before.”

Yesterday, the church I serve, celebrated my 20th year with them as their pastor. It was a wonderful day. Half of my ministry has spent at this one church.  I could not be more blessed.   They have been patient, responsive, resilient, discerning, missional, and pastoral throughout this long journey we have made together.  We have shared joys and sorrows, accomplishments and failures, growth and decline, renewal and resolve. In the climactic moment in the movie “As Good as it Gets,” the Jack Nicholson character tells the Helen Hunt character, “You make me want to be a better man,” and this is what Northway has consistently done for me, in me.  This church has made me want to be a better minister.

When I am asked how you stay at the same church for 20 years, the first thing I say is that it has almost everything to do with the church and very little to do with the minister. In 80 years this church that I serve has had just 3 senior ministers — 3!  My immediate pastoral predecessor served here 20 years, and his pastoral predecessor served here for more than 40!  That’s a remarkable record of steadfastness.  Quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugene Peterson named his collection of sermons on the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) A Long Obedience.  This comes from the Nietzsche quote –

The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

Through all of the “ups and downs” and the “ins and outs” of a ministry over two decades, a church must consciously cultivate this “long obedience” mindset if a minister is to survive, let alone thrive.  I have been given this gift from this church that I have been privileged to serve for these past 20 years.  They have “kept on keeping on.” But this same gift of perseverance, or “stick-to-it-iveness” as the chair of a search committee I once visited with put it, must also be consciously cultivated in a minister’s heart if s/he is to remain on that pastoral path of the long obedience in the same direction.

I keep a note card in one of the prayer books that I regularly use on which I wrote down the advice that Dr. Charles Kemp gave us in seminary about the four ways that we would find “repose” in our ministries. He said that peace in a minister’s heart comes by way of:

  1. Perseverance – That is, working steadily toward the goal;
  2. Patience – Ministry is relational, and relationships take time, so suppress the “I want it now” mentality that is always trying to take over our expectations and desires;
  3. Perspective – Always keep the long view of an entire ministry in mind, and not the just the present moment. Celebrate the moments of collaboration and cooperation; and
  4. Prayerfulness – Never forget that this is the Lord’s Work — we plant the seeds and we water the fields, but it is God who gives the growth (I Corinthians 3:6).

I know that I have reached the milestone of 20 years at Northway through perseverance, patience, perspective and prayerfulness, all that, and one more thing – purposefulness. From that first day on the job 20 years ago, to the anniversary celebration last Sunday, I have known who I am, why I am here, and what I have been called to do.

“My ministry will be successful only if – at its end – the people in my care
will know Jesus Christ more intimately than they did before.”

In the Reformed spiritual tradition (which I believe is our most natural spiritual habitat as Disciples) it was not uncommon for ministers to put the letters “V.D.M.” after their names.  F.F. Bruce explained the meaning of these three little letters –

“No letters indicating academic achievement or public honor can match in dignity the letters ‘V.D.M.’ applied to the pastor’s name in some Reformed churches – ‘Verbi Divini Minister’ – ‘Servant of the Word of God.’” 

A “V.D.M.” — That’s all I have ever wanted to be.  And when I am done, the most that I could possibly hope might be said of me is – “We know God in Jesus Christ just a little bit better because he was here with us for a little while.”  And I understand that the only way for me to be able do this – the only way that I know how to help people become “just a little bit better acquainted with God in Jesus Christ” – is to lead them to the Scriptures, and to let it facilitate the transformative encounter with Christ who is the living Word who changes how we think, what we value, why we act, and who we are.  DBS +

___________________________________________________________________________________________                                                           The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
Isaiah 40:8

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“You aren’t Christian!”
Confusing Sanctification with Justification

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The Nashville Statement on human sexuality (https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement) issued last week by a “who’s who” of theologically conservative Christian personalities and spokespersons has now been predictably countered with statements soundly condemning it written by a “who’s who” of theologically progressive Christian personalities and spokespersons.

Closer to the ground, ordinary conservative Christians in their Facebook postings have privately concluded and publically announced that anyone who dares to take a position contrary to the conventionally traditional conclusions of the Nashville Statement could not possibly be Christian. As Jonathan Merritt pointed out in his own measured response to the Nashville statement last week (http://religionnews.com/2017/08/30/take-a-deep-breath-the-nashville-statement-wont-change-anything/) –

“You (could) hold to every doctrine in every Christian creed since Jesus’ resurrection but (if) you disagree with the signers on this issue, (then) you are no longer a faithful Christian.”

Not to be outdone, ordinary progressive Christians in their Facebook postings have privately concluded and publically announced that anyone who doesn’t join them in their outraged rejection of the Nashville Statement could not possibly be Christian either.

And in my mind, this all begs a question – “What does it mean to be a Christian?” It’s Jesus plus just exactly what that makes me Christian? Is it Jesus plus socially progressive values? Or, is it Jesus plus socially conservative convictions?  Is it Jesus plus a traditional understanding of sexual morality? Or, is it Jesus plus an open and affirming stance on human sexuality? Is it Jesus plus the Republican political platform? Or, is it Jesus plus the Democrat political platform? Tell me again, it’s Jesus plus just exactly what that makes me Christian?

At the church I serve when someone comes forward to become a Christian, they are just asked one thing – “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and your Lord and Savior?” I remember a time not so long ago when a person who came forward to make this good confession at church, had he been pressed, would have unhesitatingly signed on to the conclusions of the Nashville Statement, while another person who came forward to make this same good confession at roughly the same time, had he been pressed, would have unquailingly repudiated the conclusions of the Nashville Statement! So, tell me, which one of these two should I have sent away saying, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe what you’re telling me about your relationship with Jesus because of what you think about (fill in the blank)!”

My conservative Christian friends are pretty sure which one should have been shown to the door. And my progressive Christian friends are pretty sure which one should have been shown to the door. The problem is, depending on what gets added to the definition of who a Christian is, my conservative Christian friends and my progressive Christian friends would each have had me dismiss the one that they themselves would have kept!  So, again I ask, what exactly is it that makes us Christian, or not?

Thomas Erskine (1788 – 1870), the Scottish lay theologian, famously observed that, In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.” And it’s this distinction between “religion” and “ethics,” and their differing sources in “grace” and “gratitude,” that reflects the careful distinction that was characteristically made in the theology of the Protestant Reformation between “justification” and “sanctification,” between “belief” and “behavior” that has helped me answer the question – What is it that makes us Christian?

It says that we become Christians through justification. Justification happens in an instant, with the decision of faith whereby God’s saving work in Jesus Christ moves from the category of being theoretically true as a general concept to becoming personally true for someone as an individual in their actual lived experience. Justification changes one’s standing or position. In justification the obstacles that have hindered one’s access to God get removed, and one is instantly restored to the status of a beloved child. Think of the father’s embrace of the prodigal, and of the immediate changes in his situation described in the word pictures of Luke 15:20-24. This is justification. One minute you’re totally estranged; the next minute you’re fully reconciled.

We start behaving like Christians through sanctification. Unlike justification that happens in an instant, sanctification is a process that unfolds gradually over time. In sanctification we start to live into the new status that we receive in our justification. We start becoming who we are. We start behaving in ways that are consonant with our new identity given to us through the saving work of Christ. We start loving others as we ourselves have been loved by God in Christ. We start forgiving others as we ourselves have been forgiven by God in Christ. We start giving more and more of ourselves away as God has given Himself to us in Jesus Christ.

Justification and sanctification are inseparable elements of the same work of redemption. Think of Jesus’ discussion of fruit and root in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:16-18). The “root” is justification. It’s who we are. The “fruit” is Sanctification. It’s what we do. Justification is an either/or matter. Either you are justified or you are not.   But sanctification is a more or less matter. At any given moment we can be more or less sanctified.   We can behave in ways that are more or less consistent with our identity in Christ. And – here’s the rub – what this means is that we can be justified and still not be very sanctified in our attitudes and actions. Think about the Corinthians!

It’s really hard for me to read I Corinthians and not come away from the experience every time without thinking that the Corinthian Christians are the most “unsanctified” folk in the entire New Testament. They were really bad at being Christians. But they were still Christians! Go back and read Paul’s description of the Corinthian Christians in the greeting of I Corinthians (1:2), and his thanksgiving for them in the opening prayer (1:4-9).  As bad as the Corinthians were at being Christians, at no point did Paul ever stop thinking of them, or referring to them as Christians! Because of his confidence in the certainty of their new identity in Christ established by their justification, Paul trusted that the process of their sanctification, slow and spotty as it was when he wrote them, would eventually take hold and unfold in them. Paul believed that Jesus Christ would finish the sanctifying work of redemption that He began in them with their justification.

And what’s instructive for me in this is the spiritual truth that we can be Christians by justification, even while we are still struggling mightily with what it means to think and act like a Christian through sanctification. I find real encouragement in this because I know personally and painfully that I am not consistently or thoroughly Christian in my behavior, even though I have consciously and conscientiously been a Christian believer now for more than fifty years. The theological framework that helps explain how this works for me, and in me, is the Justification/Sanctification distinction.

Richard Lovelace writes that while justification and sanctification are “closely intertwined,” they are nevertheless “quite distinct” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life – IVP – 1979 –pp. 98-102). Being good and doing good, both personally in terms of my morality and socially in terms of my ethics, are the fruit of justification produced through the process of sanctification. But sanctification can’t be confused with justification, or collapsed into justification, without a dangerous legalism quickly ensuing that constantly pushes us to think that we must act as the judge of the genuineness of another Christian’s Christianity. I think that we can gauge the depth of someone’s commitment to Christ based on their observable actions and attitudes.  Based on what we see, I think that we can reasonably conclude that somebody is, or is not, a very good Christian just as Paul did with the Corinthians.   But in this, I think that we must be very careful, both as Christians with traditionalist answers to the pressing moral and ethical questions of the day, and as Christians with progressive answers to the pressing moral and ethical questions of the day, about showing to the door those with whom we disagree because they are not consistently Christian in their attitudes and actions according to the way that I – as either a traditionalist Christian or a progressive Christian – understand what those Christian attitudes and actions ought to be.

Let’s stop doubting that those Christians with whom we disagree are Christians, and let’s start risking respectful conversations with them instead, the sort of respectful conversations that begin with the good faith assumption that we are each securely justified, and that we all – traditionalist Christians and progressive Christians alike – still have lots and lots of room for growth in our own sanctification, and that that process would be well served by learning to listen to why another Christian thinks the way she thinks, and acts the way she acts, especially when she thinks and acts in ways that are very different from my own ways of thinking and acting as a Christian.

Rather than concluding that those Christians with whom I disagree are not really Christians, maybe by taking the time and making the effort to understand the ways that they are trying to live into the implications of their justification, my own sanctification, that is, the ways that I am trying to live into the implications of my own justification will be served.  DBS +

 

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