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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Standing on Principle

They tell us that when someone is, say, addicted to alcohol, the people around them need to avoid enabling their behavior. So, don't do things like invite them to a party where drinking will be going on or offer them a beer or ... well, you get the idea. You may not be responsible for changing their behavior, but you shouldn't be enabling them to do bad things. So a husband who beats his wife tells a friend that he did it, and the friend keeps quiet about it because, after all, they're friends, right? That's enabling the husband to repeat the behavior. Not good.

There have been multiple stories in the news over the past few years centering on "gay rights" and Christian business owners. A bed and breakfast owner refused to rent a room to a homosexual couple (not because they were homosexual, but because the owner didn't rent the room to any unmarried couples), was sued, and lost. A baker refused to make a wedding cake for a homosexual "marriage" ceremony and was sued and lost. And then there was the photographer and the florist and ... well, you get the idea. They all said, "We are not free to provide our services for that particular behavior because that particular behavior violates our consciences", and they all paid the consequences. And conservative Christians stand up and say, "Yeah! What about that?"

I'm not asking about the legality of such consequences here. I'm wondering about the perspective. And I want to emphasize that I'm wondering about the perspective. Are Christians obliged not to serve those who are engaging in sinful behavior?

At the outset I would hope you can see that such a question is, well, stupid. I mean, the goal of Christian mission work is to serve people who specifically do not know Christ in order to lead them to Christ. Skid row missions serve homeless and spiritually lost people in order to bring them the Gospel. It would be horribly counterproductive to say, "We want to bring them the Gospel, but we can't feed homeless people because they're lost." Indeed, Jesus Himself fed the multitudes who were sinners. So that question doesn't make sense at the very beginning.

But at what point does it become enabling? Is a florist who sells flower arrangements to someone for the purpose of having a homosexual wedding enabling them? Is a Christian waitress who serves an obese customer (and Scripture opposes gluttony) enabling that sin? I mean, clearly all Christians are called to be in the world even if we are not to be of the world. We will interact with unbelievers. How much of what we do is normal interaction which, by doing it well, reflects Christ, brings glory to the Father, and presents the Gospel to the needy, and how much enables further sin?

Take your Christian photographer. She agrees to take wedding photos for a Christian wedding. We're all pleased about that. Does she refuse to take wedding photos at a non-Christian wedding? Well, no, probably not. So where is the line? Someone comes to her and asks her to take photos at their event. What event? "Well, we're having an orgy and want photos taken." Well, of course, we'd all say, "No, she shouldn't do that." So there is a line. But is a non-Christian wedding more godly than a homosexual wedding? Perhaps, since one is a genuine marriage and the other is not. Or is it? What if she was asked to document the homosexual event for the local newspaper, not as the wedding photographer?

Perhaps it is the timing of the issue? We know that immoral marriages take place all the time. A man leaves his wife for another woman and marries her. A Christian woman marries a non-Christian man. These things happen all the time. But these things happen all the time. This event, the subversion of marriage into something else, is new. Perhaps it's wrong for a Christian to participate on the basis of its newness? That is, if the wedding taking place is intended as a statement itself, perhaps providing support to that statement is the reason to deny it.

And, given that this photographer has decided that, on principle, he or she cannot provide services to this particular sin, what other sins need to be included?

And then there's the whole matter of Christian liberty. If one Christian photographer (or florist or baker or ...) excludes service to one particular sin, is it wrong for another Christian photographer to offer to do it?

And there's the whole question of whether or not what you're doing will be some sort of enabling or endorsing of sin. At a wedding -- any wedding -- who really knows who provided the floral arrangements? (And, if you did, do you think, "Wow, Mary's Floral Shop endorsed this wedding!"?) The photographer, on the other hand, is present and visible. But even then you have to wonder if the presence of the photographer constitutes endorsement or just ... business. Some would argue that the photographer is an artist and is asked to capture those "special moments", that the task of the wedding photographer is to engender in the long term a warm feeling about the event, and that would constitute endorsement. What about a t-shirt maker asked to make shirts for a Gay Pride parade? That might be a horse of a different color.

I don't think the issue is clear. I think that there are some times when the performance of a service can be construed as an endorsement or enabling of a sinful behavior, but it seems as if the only endorsement people are trying to avoid these days is the "gay wedding". There's no problem in going to your neighborhood barbecue celebrating your neighbors' moving in together. And would a Christian baker refuse to make a "divorce cake"? So is this not an issue of conscience regarding enabling and endorsing sin and only an issue of disagreement with homosexual behaviors? Perhaps we need to rethink this.
P.S. Please note that all of this has been written primarily in question form, not statement. The point is not "Those who discriminate because of conscience are wrong" or "We need to discriminate more because of conscience." I'm simply asking for more clarity.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Is it a sin to be gay?

There are two sides lined up on this issue about sin and homosexuality. One side will assure us that it is no sin and, obviously, the other will say it is. (Where do I come up with these keen insights?) The "it's not a sin" side will argue from a variety of vantage points. It's not a sin because you can't trust the Bible. It's not a sin because the Bible only lists it in six places and that's not enough. It's not a sin because that's an old view and we're much more enlightened now. And there will be variations that generally say the same things. "They're born that way so how can it be a sin?" This requires that the Bible isn't to be trusted when it says otherwise. "You don't understand what the Bible means when it says what it says." This requires that the entire history of the Church had an "old view" and we're enlightened now. You get the idea.

As it turns out, I'm not even wading into that fray yet. You see, I'm aware at the outset that in order to answer that question without qualification I'm required to give in to certain basic claims that I'm not ready to surrender. In fact, the latest translation of the Bible, the ESV, had to modify certain texts to account for this discrepancy. In 1 Cor 6:9 the New American Standard Bible refers to "homosexuals". Not the ESV. That one translates it "men who practice homosexuality". Key difference. You see, in order to answer the question of whether or not it is a sin to be gay, I'd have to admit that there is a category of human beings that are defined and classified as "homosexual", "gay" in the vernacular. And I'm not ready to admit to that. It is that classification that causes me difficulty in answering the question.

The Bible indicates that we are born sinners (Psa 51:5). That is, it's part of the basic nature of the human being. We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. Would you say, then, that it is a sin to be a sinner? I wouldn't. That would be nonsensical. It isn't a sin to be a sinner; it's a sin to sin. And "sin" has a biblical definition. It is a violation of God's law (1 John 3:4). "Sin" requires a standard to meet and the transgression of that standard. So sin is not a state of being, but an action or failure to act that violates a standard. In the cases that we care about, the standard is God's standard. Thus, sin is a failure to meet God's standards. It is not a state of being.

It is like the problem of temptation. Temptation is not sin. Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted as we are (Heb 4:15) -- tempted, "yet without sin". So the temptation itself is not the sin. James tells us that "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). Temptation is not sin. Desire is not yet sin. Sin occurs when temptation draws out desire and desire gives birth to sin. Sin is the result of temptation and desire, but temptation and desire are not sin.

So we're back at the original question. Is it a sin to be gay? First, I'm not at all sure I believe in a category of person who is defined by his or her lust. I don't have any real reason to believe that there are those born with a particular sexual desire that is classified as an "orientation". I am not convinced that there is such a thing as "gay". So I'd have a really difficult time in claiming that a category I'm not sure exists is certainly a sin. But, surrendering that point, if such a category exists and if such a person is defined by this category of sexual desire, I'd have to say that sin is defined by choices, not by temptations or desires. You can choose to violate God's standard or you can choose not to comply with God's standard (sins of commission and omission), but you can't be sin. So if there really is such a thing as "gay" as a definition of a state of being, it cannot be classified as "sin" because no state of being is classified as a violation of God's standard. Only choices to violate that standard are classified as sin.

Of course, I'm still left with that nagging question at the end of the day, aren't I? "So," some might suggest, "you're saying that it's okay to perform homosexual acts?" Ah, there, now you've given me something to work with. Acts are always choices. You can choose to act or not act on a temptation or desire. Choosing to act on the temptation or desire to engage in homosexual behavior is clearly and repeatedly stated throughout Scripture to be an act of sin. Of that there is no doubt. "Gay"? Potentially a state of being that cannot be classified as sin. Performing acts of homosexual behavior? Clearly sin. But don't mix the two up, because they are not the same. The former would be a state of being and the latter is a choice every time ... whether or not you are "gay".

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Why Do People Leave the Faith?

This question has plagued Christians through the centuries. The concept is even present in the pages of Scripture, where Hymenaeus and Alexander made "shipwreck of their faith" by failing to hold faith and good conscience (1 Tim 1:19-20). Today the perception is that they're leaving in droves. Kids -- high school and college age mostly -- in particular are jumping ship, tossing out their faith, and leaving for more skeptical shores. Why? For God's sake, why?

There is no end of answers out there for this phenomenon. It is a failure of apologetics. It's because of exclusivity claims or a feeling that God is unfair or a shallow system of beliefs. It's due to too many temptations or peer pressure or hypocrisy in other believers. The culprit is college (or not), the "war on religion" (or not), and liberal professors (or not). (I included "or not" in those because the CNN article I linked says it's not those things, but hypocrisy in the church. I should point out that this article from the Gospel Coalition agrees with the "or nots".) Sometimes it's just because God fails to measure up to their expectations. Lots of reasons. And while some contradict others, the question continues.

It is likely that several of these answers are real. That is, if you ask (as many have) those who leave the faith why they left the faith, you'll get answers like these. And it is likely that if you ask those who have not left the faith why others leave the faith, you'll get similar answers. But I'd like to ask another source: the Bible. What does the Bible say is the reason that people leave the faith? That answer should be substantive and accurate, should it not?
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge (1 John 2:19-20).
Well, now, that one didn't seem to make the list, did it? Odd. Apparently John (you know, the disciple that Jesus loved) was of the (misguided?) opinion that those who leave the faith do so because they were never in the faith. Indeed, John appears to believe that if you are actually in the faith, you will necessarily continue in the faith. John claims that those who are actually in the faith "have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge." A different category of people.

Now, that's a little different than all the other answers offered in all the other studies from all the various vantage points. But, then, John is a little bit "out there" in his viewpoint in general, isn't he? I mean, he's the one who claims "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9). And that's obviously more extreme than most of us are willing to go with. Now, if it was true, then it would coincide with his previous answer. That is, if it is true that those who are born of God lack the ability ("cannot") to make a practice of sin because "God's seed abides in him", then it would be quite obvious that those who are in that category ("born of God") would lack the ability to "go out from us". It wouldn't be in their nature.

Look, I'm quite sure that churches can be sadly lacking in many areas. The church does indeed offer a shallow faith far too often. Liberal churches offer very little in most cases because they are so open-minded that the distinction between "what we believe" and "what everyone else believes" is gone. That's a problem. "Why should we remain in the church if everything is acceptable to believe?" I can see that. The church is often geared toward dumbing down Christianity rather than aiming higher. Too often churches allow rampant sin without discipline or response and that's clearly creates an atmosphere of hypocrisy. Far too often churches don't pursue defending the faith and that's a problem (a problem first of a failure to obey God's Word). So much of the complaints and answers we've seen for why people leave the faith are valid problems. I'm not suggesting otherwise. But let's be clear here. The Bible suggests that those who "leave the faith" were never "of us" because those who are "born of God" have the Holy Spirit and lack the power to continue in sin. That's a different answer entirely. Do people "leave the faith"? Actually, no. They might exit temporarily, but either the Bible is right and they lack the ability to remain in that condition or the Bible is wrong and all bets are off. It's as simple as that. So, can we get on with addressing some of these other problems now?

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Changed Hearts Make Changed Lives

Nancy Pearcey wrote an insightful piece on Transgender Politics vs. the Facts of Life about California's new law giving transgender students access to same-sex settings. Her point in the article is that the new law has an underlying worldview, and that overturning the law will not alter that worldview.

In the case of California Assembly Bill 1266, the worldview is "biology is irrelevant." Who you are -- your gender, your sexual preferences, your behavior, etc. -- is not connected in any way to your sex. It is what you feel like. That's the notion. "What you feel like" determines reality1. It's interesting that while one end of the modern continuum places science -- the materialism version -- as the core of reality, this other end, still closely connected to the first, rejects the materialist baseline in favor of the emotional baseline. "I feel like this is right, so it is." So while religion and science both fix sex as clear and defined, our society is aiming at a postmodern version where definitions don't matter, science doesn't count, reality is fluid, and "what I want to think, feel, and do" is all that matters. Pearcey wrote, "The autonomous self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose -- not even its own body." You think I'm overstating? Look a this NPR story about how young people are rejecting all gender definitions. Some of these people "might be Jimmy one day, and Deloris the next2." Others "reject the gender binary as an oppressive move by the dominant culture." You see, this isn't a problem of facts. It isn't a rational problem. It isn't even a problem of laws. It's a problem of worldview. "I determine what is right and true and good by what I desire. You will be required to agree."

I find the concept horrifying, but this is not about the concept. I am appalled at the lack of logic and the clear senselessness, but I'm not writing about these features. I'm writing to point out a common issue here. We who are believers are often outraged at the laws being passed or the court rulings foisted on us by a society growing more and more ... insane. We want to complain about the courts. We want to complain about the legislators. And since we vote in the legislators, we want to complain about the voters who do. We want to overturn the rulings, change the laws, and, apparently, fix these errors by some sort of political power. This is what I'm writing about.

Note that the fundamental problem is not the courts, the legislators, or even the voters. It isn't the liberals or the gays or the transgenders. It is the worldview. Changing rulings and laws might change the rules, but it won't change the thinking. And the thinking is the problem.

We might be able to petition the courts or lobby the legislatures, to get out the vote to gain political power for our side. And I'm not saying not to do it. By all means feel free to fight our sure loss of religious freedom in the courts and work at blocking immoral laws in the legislatures and all that. What I'm saying here is that the real solution, however, is not found in those actions. The real solution is found only in Christ. And if your efforts are primarily consumed in these political efforts, you'll be simply slowing the cultural progress to what is a sure end.

Humans, by their sin nature, reject God in favor of their own self-interests. They are hostile to God (Rom 8:7). Attempting legislation and court rulings to make them more friendly to God simply ignores the worldview problem. Our primary method of affecting our society, then, has to be the Gospel. Only God changes hearts, and it is changed hearts that are necessary to change our society, its laws, its courts, and its standing on these matters. By all means defend the faith. By all means give an answer. By all means petition legislators and stand in court. But remember that the problem is not the law you wish to enact or change or the court ruling you wish to obtain or overturn. The problem is sin. And remember that you know the answer to that problem. A primary focus on that solution will be far more effective and helpful than any legislation you might wish to effect.
1 I was fascinated by the language of one cited law. "Gender . . . includes a person's gender identity and gender related appearance and behavior whether or not stereotypically associated with the person's assigned sex at birth." "Assigned sex"? In what sense? The idea sounds like an arbitrary lottery in some government office. "Birth #15602 -- female. Birth #15603 -- male ..." But to me it screams "God!" God assigns sex. Who are you to answer back to God?

2 Am I the only one that is confused by this concept that someone can choose to be one gender one day (or, in the article, one event) and the other the next? Is it only me that finds it baffling that they are claiming you can choose to be homosexual today and heterosexual tomorrow (and "something else" -- whatever that may be -- another day)? I mean, I thought the claim was that we are "born that way" (which they use to tell us that it's the same as race). Now they're telling us it's a choice?? So you can choose to be whatever sexual orientation you might be and, in the process, remove the rights of others? Is anyone else but me having trouble following the logic here?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

I Believe

One of my favorite stories in all the Gospels is the story of the man with the demon-possessed son (Mark 9:14-29). You remember that story. This poor father brought his son to the disciples to get them to free his son from the clutches of a demon. They figured they could do it because, after all, they had been doing it (Matt 10:8). They, of course, were wrong. So Jesus came on the scene and asked what the problem was. The father told Jesus the troubles with his son and the failure of the disciples. Jesus gave the expected response ... oh, no, wait ... didn't see that coming.
O unbelieving generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him to Me (Mark 9:19)!
Now, where did that come from? Well, they brought the son to him and the moment he saw Jesus the demon threw him into convulsions. Jesus spoke with compassion -- "How long has this been happening to him?" (Mark 9:21). The dad told Him and begged Him for help.
If You can do anything, take pity on us and help us (Mark 9:22)!
"If". "If"? Jesus told him, "All things are possible to him who believes" (Mark 9:23) to which the father makes the very prayer of my heart. "I do believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). There it is. Yes, I have faith. Yes, I trust You. Yes, I know you can do all things. And yet ...

And yet it was sufficient. Jesus expelled the demon (Mark 9:25), made matters worse (Everyone thought the boy was dead) (Mark 9:26), and ultimately restored the healed son to his father (Mark 9:27).

The disciples wanted to know what they did wrong (Mark 9:28). Jesus told them "This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer" (Mark 9:29). Perhaps the parallel version provides additional insight. In the Matthew version Jesus also told them it was due to their "littleness of faith" (Matt 17:20).

I love the story because I so heartily identify with the father. "I believe; help my unbelief." I know that God can do anything, but I often question whether or not He will. I hang on that "if". I get it. So I love the "help my unbelief" prayer because, first, there is help for my unbelief -- I don't have to muster the faith on my own -- and, second, the requirement isn't for vast faith, but just a little. I love that.

Did you ever wonder about that earlier phrase? Jesus seemed a bit miffed at those He called an "unbelieving generation". Who was that? Some believe it was the father. Others argue that it was the crowd. I would agree with both. But I would argue, at the end, that it included the very disciples to whom the father had brought his son. Why? Because, according to Jesus, the reason they couldn't get rid of this demon was the littleness of their faith. Repeatedly Jesus calls His very own disciples "men of little faith" (Matt 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). They were, basically, no different than the boy's father. "I believe; help my unbelief."

That's the parallel lesson I pull from this passage. I like the "help my unbelief" concept because I recognize that I can be a believer lacking faith. I don't want to be that person. I believe. Help my unbelief.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Say Goodbye, Freedom

Justice Richard Bosson of the New Mexico State Supreme Court wrote a "specially concurring" opinion of the ruling last week against Jonathan and Elaine Huguenin, the owners of Elane Photography. Elaine is the one who refused to photograph a same-sex couple's commitment ceremony on the grounds that doing so would require her to function as a celebrant in the event which would violate her religious beliefs and, thus, her conscience. The court held she had no such right and unanimously agreed that her right to religious beliefs was superceded by the same-sex couple's right to be served. (Yes, friends, that banging you hear in the background is the beginning efforts of the common culture to tear down your religious freedoms.)

I was interested in some of what Justice Bosson had to say. He wrote, "If honoring same-sex marriage would so conflict with their fundamental religious tenets . . . how then, they ask, can the State of New Mexico compel them to 'disobey God' in this case? How indeed?" Bingo! You got it! But he went on to explain that they could and would compel them to disobey God.

He went on to say, "At its heart, this case teaches that at some point in our lives all of us must compromise, if only a little, to accommodate the contrasting values of others." Now that is an interesting use of a word. The word, "compromise", means "to settle differences by mutual concessions." In this case, then, the Christians will concede their religious freedoms, their beliefs, and their obedience to God along with a fine and, potentially, their business. And the other side will concede ... oh, yeah ... nothing at all. No, wait, they will actually gain rather than concede. They will gain rights over the beliefs of others and the conscience of others and, in this particular case, they will gain the standing equivalent to a racial standing. They will, simply by being sexually attracted to the same gender, be able to force people to bend to their desires and support their whims. So ... where exactly is the mutual concession?

"Oh," some will say, "you can't do that. You can't stand on religious grounds and do harm to them." Well, I suppose so, except the couple hired another photographer without a problem. There wasn't any delay, any injury, any problem caused. They didn't sue because there was a loss, in fact, but because they didn't want to allow anyone to be able to stand on their religious views on this subject. Justice Bosson wrote, "There is a price, one that we all have to pay somewhere in our civic life." In this case, it is the First Amendment right, not to save a minority from harm, but to remove the right of an individual to hold their religious belief. (Is that banging getting louder?)

Essential Christianity - Conclusion

I've tried to outline the absolutely essential components of that which is called "Christianity". I did this first by differentiating between the two different questions, "What must I do to be saved?" and "What is the basic construction required to maintain this house we call 'Christianity'?" Or, in terms of the house metaphor, "What do I have to do to get inside?" and "Now that I'm in, what's it made of?"

To get inside is simple: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. This requires a mental acquiescence on which you place your confidence that there was a Jesus of Nazareth who was the promised Messiah and who is now the ultimate authority. This trust is in a Jesus who lived and died and rose again in order to solve the problem of human sin.

And then there is the whole issue of what is essential to Christianity. I gave a list of things. But I'd like to review that list from the opposing viewpoint. What would happen if these items were not received, not acceptable, not in place? That is, in what sense are they essential?

I made the claim that the Bible is God's Word and, as such, is inerrant, infallible, and authoritative. But what if it was not? Well, without such a basis for Christianity, we are left with a nice, squishy place to stand. Who knows where you're wrong or right since it is not inerrant? Who knows where the failures occur since it is not infallible? And what authority do we allow if not the God-breathed Word? Yours? Mine? The Church's? You see, if you reject the Bible as the Word that God breathed to selected men to offer an inerrant, infallible, and authoritative revelation of God's thoughts on the matters He intended, then you reject any binding basis on which to make any argument or take any position on matters of faith or practice. Brothers, you're on your own. Perhaps the Puritans were right in their narrow views or perhaps Pastor Shuck is right in rejecting all of it -- the Bible, God, the Resurrection, Christ. No one has the right to impose their view on anyone else because no one has the authorization -- the authority -- to do so. No biblical reliability and authority? No Christianity.

What if God is not a Trinity? Well, there's going to be a whole lot of biblical problems because the Bible is full of cross-connections between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God's own claim to being One will be in jeopardy and Christ's claim to being "I AM" was a lie and the nature of the Holy Spirit is a complete unknown (which is likely a good thing in this case since Jesus -- apparently falsely -- claimed He would send the Spirit to lead His people into all truth and the Holy Spirit apparently has failed completely to do so given the constant verification of the Church that God is a Trinity). No Trinity? No Christianity.

The claim is that Man is not a sinner because he sins, but sins because he is a sinner. The claim is that Man is sinful from birth. Now surely that is debatable, right? Well, not so much. First, the Bible makes the claim, and if it is wrong, refer to that paragraph about the loss of an inerrant Bible. But beyond that, if Man is not sinful from birth, it would stand to reason that some would not fall into sin, even if it is a minority, a miniscule number. But that would, again, invalidate Scripture that claims that all have sinned. Sorry. Still a problem. And, look, it doesn't take a spiritual giant or a Bible expert to open your eyes, look at the "innocence of children" and realize that no such innocence exists. They will lie and steal and do whatever it takes to benefit themselves without regard to others. They don't tend to be good; they have to be taught to be good. So if the claim of the sin nature of Man is false, so is the Bible, logic, and Christianity.

The central issue of Christianity, the Bible -- all of it -- is clearly Christ. The claim is that He is God Incarnate, that He lived on earth as a man, lived a sinless life, died for our sin, and rose again. The claim is that He will indeed return. Now surely we can disagree on one of these, right? Are they actually essential? Well, yes, they are essential and if we disagree on any of these, we dismantle our faith. The problem, remember, is sin. The nature of God, remember, includes Justice. The answer, then, requires that Sin is addressed and Justice is met. In this, Jesus had to be a human to answer the problem of Man's sin. He had to live a sinless life to address the sins of others. He had to pay the price owed for sin in order to satisfy the demands of justice. He had to be God Incarnate -- much more than just human -- in order for that sinless life and payment for sin to satisfy the demands of justice for more than one. And He had to rise again in order to demonstrate victory. If you choose to take off even one piece of this picture, the whole thing falls apart, we are still in our sin, and Christianity is at its end.

There are not a few who would like to suggest that the whole "Church" thing is peripheral. "I'm spiritual, not religious. I don't need others in this relationship with Christ." The Bible disagrees. It was, according to Jesus, one of His purposes for coming at all. The grouping known as "the people of God" is a key element throughout the Bible. We form "the Body of Christ" here on earth. We are a coherent group actuated by individual gifts to accomplish an overall mission. We form the current Temple of God. Without these, Christianity becomes a personalized belief system apart from Scripture (refer again to that paragraph on what happens without Scripture) and Christ failed to accomplish His purpose (refer again to the problem of a Christ who was not God). In short, no Church, no Christianity.

The process of Christianity is three-fold. We have justification by grace through faith in Christ, sanctification, and glorification. Any other justification -- by merit, by works, or by anyone other than Christ -- and we have no chance at justification or, subsequently, salvation. Since God's purpose in justifying us is to form us into the image of His Son, removing sanctification is removing God's primary purpose and, in the end, God fails. And the final outcome has always been to produce people who will "see Him as He is" -- glorification. If no such event exists, the Bible is wrong, God fails, and Christianity is no more.

Ultimately this requires a real "endgame", an actual Heaven and Hell. We may disagree about the details, but the basic facts remain. Hell is forever. Heaven is forever. Hell is eternal torment. Heaven is being eternally in the presence of God. These places are real places. These facts are clearly attested to by Scripture. Hell is the place Christ came to save us from. Heaven is the place Christ came to save us to. If one or the other or both are not a reality, it's all bunk. Christianity is over.

That's what I mean by "Essential Christianity". These pieces are coherent -- they stick together -- and necessary for the entire structure to stand. They are, in this "house", foundations and pillars and load-bearing walls. Take one out and you dismantle the whole. They are not individual claims, but stand structurally interlinked. Are these things required for you to be a Christian? No, of course not. But they are required for Christianity to remain. Thus, if, once inside, you attempt to dismantle one or more of these pieces, the question would be whether or not you entered by the Door. The question would be whether or not you have that Spirit promised by Christ to lead you into all truth. These beliefs aren't necessary to become a Christian, but, once presented with them, denying them will simply lead to the destruction of Christianity itself, at least for yourself. And then where would you be? Not inside this house we call "Christianity".

Sunday, August 25, 2013

My Good

We are told that "loving yourself" is learning what's best for you and doing it. I disagree in general, but if we understand "what's best for you" in reality, I would probably have to agree in principle. You see, what's best for you -- for you, for me, for any one of us, for each and every one of us -- is that we would be wholly and completely enraptured by God, thoroughly in love with Him, seeking nothing but His glory. Now, I try to be an honest person, so I have to admit that I have not yet arrived. But I want to.

The psalmist, Asaph, captures in Psalm 73 the deepest longing of my heart.
Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from You will perish; You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You. But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works. (Psa 73:25-28).
I want it, but I struggle with it. I desire things on earth -- the love of my wife, the warmth of friendship, even simple things like food and shelter. But I want to arrive at this point. The last sentence in particular contains the reality I want to embrace: "The nearness of God is my good."

That, dear Lord, is where I want to live.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Signs, Signs, Everywhere There's Signs

I'm the kind of guy who likes to follow the rules. Upbringing, I suppose. But when I see a sign that says "Enter" here and "Exit" there, I tend to go out of my way if necessary to "Enter" here and "Exit" there. You won't likely see me parking in a "Handicap Only" parking space. I try to do what I'm told.

Sometimes that gets difficult. You pull out of a parking lot and you see the sign that tells you, "No right turn". Now, what kind of rule is that? Why is it mandatory that any turn I take out of that parking lot would be the wrong one? But ...

One sign I came across at a college campus said, "Observe all signs." Now, that seemed like an impossible command. How was I to know where all signs were? Surely I wasn't expected to go into, say, the women's restroom and observe the signs. There were sure to be signs behind locked doors. So how could I comply?

One time I went to work on a Monday and saw the signs on the wall: "Wet Paint." Now, being the rule-follower that I am, I tried looking around for some way to obey. I mean, it would be a waste of good coffee to throw that on the wall, but, for reasons I didn't grasp, they appeared to want me to keep their paint wet.

Then I noticed the smaller writing underneath. "Painted with pride by the Maintenance Department." Well, this just brought me up short. "Painted with pride"? Odd. I would have thought they would have used paint. They used ... pride? Strange. And then it struck me. The wall ... was white. Oh, this was just wrong. They painted this wall with white pride? What kind of place was this "Maintenance Department" with their racism and odd painting methods?

Sometimes signs just confuse me.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Essential Christianity - Heaven and Hell

We've pretty much hit all of the high spots by now. We've covered the Gospel -- "What must I do to be saved?" -- and the basics of that process. We've examined the other necessary components that form the structure of Christianity, those key pieces without which the building will not stand:

1. Scripture is key. It is the inerrant, infallible word of God that He breathed for select men to write His thoughts in order to give us a firm foundation. Without it we're just making guesses.

2. God is the primary point in Christianity. He is the reason. He is One, not multiple. He is a Trinity, which is not three gods or three modes, but one God in three persons, coequal, coexistent, distinct but not separate. Above all else, He is Holy.

3. Man is the primary problem in Christianity. We were made in God's image, but we are fallen and without hope. We stand convicted of Cosmic Treason against a Holy God and are in dire need of help.

4. Christ is God's answer to our problem. Jesus lived a sinless life, died on our behalf, and rose again. He was fully Man and fully God and fully real. There is no other answer available but faith in Jesus, the Christ, alone.

5. The Church is the Body of Christ, the Temple built of "living stones", necessary for believers. It is the gathering of the saints, those set apart by God, for the purpose of building one another up toward maturity.

6. Justification is by grace through faith in Christ. It is the imputation of our sin to Christ in return for the imputation of His righteousness to us. It is not earned, merited, or achieved. None of these are within the ability of Man to obtain. It is declared by God.

7. Sanctification is the necessary process by which God's saved children are transformed, changed necessarily through the leading and discipline of God in His own.

8. Glorification is the endgame, the final outcome. It is at the return of Christ in which our bodies are resurrected and transformed and we will be finally and completely joined to Christ.

There is one other concept that must be stated here simply because it has been refuted too often. It must be stated because it is essential. If it is not true, neither is Christianity. Hopefully by outlining these essentials you can see why it must be true or no Christianity.

Given that Scripture is clear on this and that God is Holy, given that Man is sinful and Christ is the only answer, given that justification is required and glorification is the end, there are two truths that must be true if any of this is to matter. These two are two sides of the same coin. They are the certainty of Hell for those who are not saved and the certainty of Heaven for those who are.

The Bible isn't even slightly hesitant or vague here. Jesus spoke repeatedly of eternal torment (Luke 16:28) and the fire that never goes out (Mark 9:47-48) for those who don't repent. It is the just reward for those who are not justified -- made right. Now, we can dispute over terms -- "Sheol" as the place of the dead or "Hades" as the eternal place of torment -- but we cannot avoid the reality of such a place. We can debate about the environment. Is it actual fire and physical torment, or something else? But we cannot avoid the fact that eternal torment is in view. Hell is not a story manufactured by mean-spirited folk intent on scaring people into being good. It is the correct, righteous outcome for those who intentionally violate the commands of the Most High. Anything less is not justice. Any claim to anything less is a failure to grasp the fundamental problem and magnitude of sin.

And the Bible isn't unclear about the outcome for believers. It is glorification, to be sure. But in that there is the certainty of a "new heaven and a new earth" (Rev 21:1). Jesus will reign among us (Rev 21:3). It will be a place of bliss where "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev 21:4). A real Heaven.

Some have argued, mostly recently, that Hell is not a real place. There is no place of eternal torment. This serves to delete Scripture as a viable source and to mitigate sin as a genuine problem. In the end, Christ's death becomes pointless, unnecessary, if Hell is not real. Equally, all God's promises to His own are erased if Heaven is not a real place. Not a place with clouds and harps, but a place of joy where we are joined to Christ without sin or pain. Remove either of these, and you remove Christianity. But, oh, with all of these together, what a wonderful faith we enjoy!
Since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:21-25).

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Essential Christianity - Glorification

We've looked at justification by grace through faith in Christ and then at sanctification, the work of God in His people to conform them to the image of His Son. The final step is what is referred to as glorification.

The term comes from the reference in Romans 8.
We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. (Rom 8:28-30).
That last term is in view here. It is a certainty. Those whom He called ... He also glorified. No doubt. No contingencies. No question. But ... what is it?

Glorification refers to the end of the story. What happens to the believer in the final outcome? Part of that story is "the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:7). Another is what theologians refer to as "the Beatific Vision", of which John wrote when he said, "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is" (1 John 3:2). It is the final step, the last transformation, that ultimate union between believers and Christ. We will be changed. New bodies. New beings. No longer capable of sin.

This glorification is based on Christ's return. This is what is referred to as eschatology, the study of last things. There is a lot of disagreement within Christianity about the details of eschatology. Will there be a "Rapture" or won't there? When will that Rapture occur? Will there be a literal 1,000 year millenial reign or won't there? How literal is Revelation? Oh, lots and lots of questions. But there are a few certainties about which there is no disagreement. One fundamental fact is that Christ will return. He promised it. He will do it. End of question.

In Christ's return, Christians will have their final change (1 Thess 4:16-17). At that point, we are told, our bodies will be raised. Christianity does not teach that our spirits are imprisoned in some sense in our bodies and, in the end, we'll be free from them (1 Cor 15:22-23). No, our bodies will be raised.
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality (1 Cor 15:51-53).
Glorification refers to that moment at Christ's return when we will be changed, when we will see Him as He is and be like Him. We will no longer be capable of sin, no longer be capable of sadness. We will be in perfect union with Him and not merely as disembodied spirits, but as physical beings in glorified bodies (Phil 3:20-21).

Saved from wrath is a good thing. Saved by grace through faith is wonderful. Imputed righteousness is great. Being transformed into the image of Christ is marvelous. But it is this final step at the return of our Savior that the entire story is culminated. It is the final outome of God's perfect plan. It is part of the basic essence of Christianity.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Essential Christianity - Sanctification

Christianity includes three basic steps. There is, first, justification. That is where our sin is imputed to Christ, His righteousness is imputed to us, and we are declared just by God. Second comes sanctification. This is the process by which we are shaped into the image of Christ. The final step is called glorification. We'll get to that one later.

There are some who argue that once you're saved, your saved. Nothing more needs to occur. No big deal. This is probably a warm, fuzzy idea, but it isn't biblical. It is, in fact, counter-biblical. Justification by grace through faith in Christ alone is the necessary starting point, but it is inevitable that sanctification follows. Sanctification is the progressive work of God on the believer. It begins at justification and continues until Heaven.

Paul refers to this process when he commands, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12:2). James wrote, "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2:14, 17). John wrote, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9).

Sanctification is the work of God (Phil 2:13) in which God progressively disciplines us (Heb 12:3-11) and directs us to more and more likeness to His Son (Rom 8:29). It is the place where we learn more and more obedience (John 14:15). The more we cooperate with God in this effort (Phil 2:12), the better it goes, but this process will occur. "If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons" (Heb 12:8).

Some will try to tell you that once you're saved, you're always saved and any demand for "evidence" or "works" is wrong. The Bible says that the Father destined us to be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29) and disciplines us toward that end. He saved us for good works (Eph 2:10). It isn't a possible process; it is a sure one. We are not saved simply to avoid wrath, but to be thoroughly connected to and reflective of the Son. That's the essence of sanctification.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Essential Christianity - Justification

Okay, so far we know that our basis is a reliable Bible breathed by God through men of His choosing by which we can now grasp the truth of Christianity. No Bible; no Christianity. Without it, we're just making guesses and offering opinions. We know that God is the central point. He is, above all else, holy, set apart, other than we are. He is One, not plural. He is a Trinity, One God in three persons, coequal, distinct, but not separate. And He has a unique nature. We also know something about Man's nature. He is, first, made in the image of God, and that's good. But, since Adam, Man has also retained the sin nature. We sin because we are sinners by nature. And that's a problem. A big problem. And it was just as much a problem to God as it was to us, since God's nature -- His Holiness and Justice -- demanded payment for, not simple dismissal of, the transgression. The answer to this really big problem is the person and character of Jesus Christ. He is the second person of the Trinity, God the Son. He became actual flesh, lived a sinless life, died on our behalf, and rose again. He paid the price for all of us. He is the only answer to our sin problem, and He is a complete answer. That's what we know so far.

So, the next essential to consider is how, exactly, this solution is applied to our problem. We asked the question way back at the beginning, "What must I do to be saved?" We answered it with the simple requirement of faith, and explained further just in whom that faith must be placed, but the question still hangs there. So, believing in the Lord Jesus Christ is required, but how does that provide salvation? What is the answer to the problem of sin?

The answer is justification. It's a fancy theological term for a simple concept. We need to be made right. However, there are two aspects to this term that need to be applied. First, the debt has to be erased. We have to be made clean. But being clean is only the first step. It is the removal of the dirt. But the demands of righteousness are not merely cleanliness, but righteousness. We have to have sin removed and righteousness applied. And that isn't something that we can accomplish. The idea in Scripture is that justification is by grace through faith in Christ.

First rule: Justification is by faith. Abundantly clear in the pages of Scripture is the simple and quite stunning fact that we are not justified by being good. This is one of those "standalone" areas for Christianity. While every other religion holds that you be good and then you go to heaven, Christianity alone holds that you are justified by faith. This was the Old Testament principle. It is the New Testament principle. It is the absolute hinge pin of Christianity. It was stated way back in Abraham's day when it says, "Then he (Abraham) believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen 15:6). There it is in plain language. "Believe" = "righteousness". Note how that righteousness is received: "reckoned". That's the concept. So, "by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph 2:8-9). That's the principle. By faith; not of works.

Second rule: Justification is by grace. The biblical definition of "grace" is somewhat unique to Christianity. While the idea is "favor", it includes a descriptive that is not the usual. Biblical grace refers to unmerited favor. "If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace" (Rom 11:6). Salvation by grace -- favor apart from personal merit -- is essential.

And, of course, as already indicated, that grace comes from Christ on the basis of faith in Christ. In no sense is this justification obtained by our own efforts, on our own merits, or based on anything other than Christ.

There is in all of this talk about justification a concept of singular importance. It is called "imputation". The idea is found there in the reference to Abraham in Genesis. Righteousness wasn't earned; it was "reckoned" on the basis of faith. So, God "made Him (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor 5:21). That's the idea. In Christianity, our sin was imputed to Christ on the cross, leaving our slate clean, and, in return, His righteousness was imputed to us on the basis of faith, leaving us righteous.

The formula is complete. The conditions are met. The answer is there. What must I do to be saved? Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. How does that save? It applies my sin to Christ and applies His righteousness to me. All of this -- justification -- is accomplished not on the basis of works, not on the basis of merit, and not on anything in me. That is justification by grace through faith in Christ. It is unique to Christianity and absolutely essential, a key structure necessary for Christianity to stand.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Essential Christianity - the Church

Jesus, God Incarnate, came to earth for several reasons. He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). He came to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). And He came to "build My Church" (Matt 16:18). Most people equate "Christianity" with "church". So ... what exactly is it? More importantly, what is essential about it?

The Bible refers to the Church as the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27). It is constructed of people, "living stones" (1 Peter 2:5). Christians comprise the "Temple" of God where an earthly, stone version once existed (1 Cor 3:6). This "Temple", this "Body" is, as a unit, Christ's representative on earth. This Temple breaches time and crosses from present through the past to the beginning of Christianity. It is made up of saints -- those made righteous by Christ -- from all time and for all time. Thus, this Church (with a capital "C") is much bigger than the visible buildings we often equate with the term, "church".

Beyond this, the Church (capital "C") is designed to be comprised of local churches (lowercase "c"), local groups of believers who gather together for the purpose of the building up of the saints to maturity (Eph 4:11-14). We are warned not to forsake that gathering (Heb 10:25). The Church, then, is the Body of Christ, seen and unseen, while the church is the local body of believers who gather to build one another up in the faith and to encourage one another in God's work. (Note, by the way, that Scripture is abundantly clear that while the Church is all saints for all time, the church will be made up of genuine believers and false believers, what Jesus referred to as "tares" (Matt 13:24-30). Expect it.)

The Bible offers a structure for the church. Of course, the starting point is Christ as the head, but beyond that the Bible includes two "offices": Elders and Deacons. (It was, in fact, the reason that Paul sent Titus to Crete (Titus 1:5).) These comprise the local church leadership. Elders (overseers, bishops, shepherds) are to lead the church spiritually, and deacons are called to lead the church structurally. For the qualifications of these two offices, see 1 Tim 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6-9.

The most interesting aspect of the biblical version of "Church" is this "Body" image. Paul likens the Church to the human body in terms of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:4-27). Each has a function. Not all functions are the same. All functions are necessary. All functions are valuable. No one has no function. The functions are determined by the Holy Spirit (leaving no room for arrogance or apathy).

Connected to this concept of the Body is the concept of the Bride. The Church is referred to as the Bride of Christ. This is not to say that each and every one of us is "married to Christ". It is a reference to Christ's intimacy with the Body, the corporate Church. She is subservient to Him. He loves her. The final union of the Church to Christ is yet to come.

There are lots of details in here. What exactly do the qualifications for elder and deacon mean? Are there female deacons or not? Are the "magical" gifts still in effect or are they past? What exactly should we do when we gather? Lots and lots of questions that are open for discussion. I'm not trying to minimize any of that, nor provide hard positions where there are none taken by the Bible. I'm just offering the essentials. No Body of Christ, no Christianity. No Church, no Christianity. No corporate connection to Christ, no Christianity. The church is one necessary component of Christianity -- our need to be in it, and to be part of it. Whatever else can be decided, this is certain.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Commandments

The Bible is full of commands from God. He tells His people to do everything from "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind" (Matt 22:37) to avoid eating rabbits (Lev 11:6). It's a large and comprehensive set of commands. Some, to be sure, are no longer applicable. Some are based on the sacrificial system that preceded Christ's fulfillment of the system and others were to a particular people group for a particular time and a particular separation apart from any other moral code. Fine. But regardless of how you cut it, I can tell you one simple fact about all of God's commands. You can't do it. Easy as that.

I mean, look, this isn't rocket science. I'm not speaking from some esoteric philosophical argument. The "Greatest Commandment" according to Christ is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." So, let me ask you about one, single command. Just one. Just that one. Can you? Is doing that one, single, solitary command within the realm of your possible obedience? No, I didn't think so.

It is interesting, then, considering the biblical imperatives. We are told "You must be born again", but we do not have it in our power to do so. We are told to believe, but it goes against our sin nature to do so. We are told to work out our salvation, but it is not actually possible to do this. So what are we, who wish dearly to obey our Heavenly Father, to do?

As it turns out, that which God commands of us is not what we are able to do on our own, but that which we can do because of Him. When Paul made the claim that "There is none who does good; not even one" (Rom 3:12), he wasn't dealing with hyperbole. He was referring to this simple fact. Humans do not do good -- good as defined by God. Good is that which is done by God and for God. That kind of behavior violates sinful human nature.

And, yet, we're still commanded to obey. We're still expected to "do good to all men". And so on. What's a believer to do? A believer trusting in God (which is, by the way, an echo -- a "believer" is defined as one who is "trusting in God") can and will obey to the extent that God "is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil 2:13). As simple as that. God commands us to do what He knows we must do but lack the will and ability to do. So He works in us to supply the will and ability. And none of us, then, have any room to boast. As Paul said, "Our sufficiency is from God" (2 Cor 3:5).

That's a good thing. That's why, in the end, we will cast our crowns before the throne. We didn't earn them; He did. And that's why in our daily life we don't have to worry about failure. Yes, you will fail. But in the end any and all success is the accomplishment of God, and He doesn't fail ... ever. And that's a good thing.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Learning to Love

It was Whitney Houston who assured us that "the greatest love of all" is "learning to love yourself". But it wasn't just Whitney's idea. The song was written by Michael Masser and Linda Creed. Oh, and it was George Benson who originally recorded it. But that's all peripheral. The notion is prevalent everywhere. And by "love yourself" it is generally intended that you mean "feel good about yourself". It means that you ignore your faults and accept yourself for who you are. It means you find what makes you happy and you do it. It is positive self-esteem (which, by the way, is a meaningless phrase, since "esteem" means "respect and admiration" which are, by definition, positive).

As a result of all this "love yourself" message floating around both in society and in the Bible, we are told as Christians that we need to learn to love ourselves, to have self-esteem, to accept ourselves for who we are. If we are going to obey Christ, we are going to have to first learn to feel good about ourselves before we can learn to love others as we love ourselves. Only makes sense.

Except it's all wrong. You see, we've taken a word -- "love" -- and imported a meaning into it -- "feel warmly about" -- and then imported that meaning into Scripture, a meaning that was never intended to be there. How do I know? Well, let's examine what Scripture has to say about loving yourself.

Jesus said that the second greatest commandment was to love others as you love yourself (Mark 12:31). That makes it important. But there is another passage in Scripture that addresses self-love.
Husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body (Eph 5:28-30).
There's that same idea. Husbands are to love their wives as they love themselves. But Paul here does not suggest that a husband, then, would first have to learn to love himself. Indeed, Paul states the opposite: "No one ever hated his own flesh." What can we infer from this, then? When Jesus said that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, He meant that we already love ourselves. This isn't the first step. It's the next step. To put it in the correct terms, we would understand that He meant, "You are to love your neighbor as you already love yourself. Oh, and you do already love yourself."

Now, we do know that a large number of people suffer from a poor self-image (which isn't the same thing as "negative self-esteem", is it?). So how does that work? I think we can infer from these texts exactly what the Bible means by "love" here. It isn't "feel good about". It's isn't a warm feeling or affection. Paul said that a man loves himself as evidenced by the fact that he "nourishes and cherishes" himself. And that is the intent of the term. Nourish. Cherish. Interestingly, the Greek words mean "to train up to maturity" and "to foster", respectively. Thus, using "nourish" and "cherish" as a definition of biblical love, our aim is to do for those around us the things that produce maturity and foster their best interests. We do that for ourselves. Now do it for others.

The Bible agrees with Whitney and the rest that love is important. The Bible disagrees that it's something you need to learn to do. That's because the biblical definition of love in this sense is simply doing that which is in the best interest for those around us just as we naturally do what is in our own best interest. That's not complicated. Nor is it limited to warm feelings or affection. And it's something we can choose to do at any given time. Indeed, we are commanded to choose to do it regularly. Besides, isn't "ignore your faults and accept who you are" somewhat contradictory to the aim of Christ in our lives? How about it?

Friday, August 16, 2013

Essential Christianity - Jesus Christ

Yeah, yeah, I know, you'd think with a name like "Christianity" I'd have come to the nature of Christ a long time ago. Well, we're there now. I didn't get to this point until now because we needed first to establish Scripture as our basis and the nature of God as Trinity. I threw in the Nature of Man before this just so we would be reminded of why the good news is good news. So what about Christ is essential to Christianity?

The very first thing about Jesus that must be believed is that He is real. A belief in a spiritual Jesus or a mythical Jesus doesn't count. If there was no Jesus, there was no solution to Man's sin problem. A spiritual or mythical Jesus provides no answers. Jesus, then, is a historical man who lived and died in Israel 2000 some odd years ago. Absolutely essential.

But that's just the start. The Bible obviously argues that He was a real person, that He lived, and that He died, but it also argues that He rose from the dead three days after His death. He physically rose from the dead. He was present in our world, performed human interactions with our world like talking and eating and touching, and was seen by multiple witnesses. In fact, the texts that make these arguments were written in the time of eyewitnesses who could have refuted them. Absolutely essential to Christianity is the fact that the Jesus who died on the cross and was buried actually, physically rose again three days later. Without that resurrection, Paul says, "We are of all men most to be pitied" (1 Cor 15:19). No, it's worse than that. "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins" (1 Cor 15:17). Or, to put it another way, no resurrection, no Christianity. Simple as that.

The fundamental premise in Christ coming physically to our world, living, dying, and rising again is based on the fundamental principle of God as Just. You see, we stand -- each of us -- condemned of Treason of the highest degree against the Most High God. God, as Just and Holy, is not capable of simply dismissing the charges. It would violate His character, His nature. So justice is demanded. And that justice was the purpose of sending His only Son. What, then, is required for this justice to be served and to benefit us?

First, Jesus had to be human. A human being was required to pay the price for human sin. Jesus, then, was human indeed. Second, in order for this price to be paid on behalf of another -- any other -- Jesus Himself could not have had to owe such a price. Thus, Jesus would have to have been without sin. The Bible says He was "One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin" (Heb 4:15). Tested by sin, but never succumbed to it. He had to be perfect. Third, He had to be more than merely human. You see, if one man is going to pay the price for one other man, that man would have to not owe the price -- sinless -- but he couldn't pay for more than one. In order for Christ to pay the debt for more than one, He would have to be more than Man. Thus, it is absolutely essential to your salvation and to Christianity, despite all who argue otherwise, that Jesus was indeed God Incarnate, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. No other could accomplish the payment in full of the debt of mankind to God.

One other factor is essential here, based around these facts. If Jesus is the only person -- God and Man, sinless, lived, died, and rose again -- to have accomplished this process of paying for the sin problem of Mankind, then it stands to reason that Jesus is the only answer. Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (John 14:6). There is no other available answer. There is no other way. It is not true, in the case of being saved from sin and God's just wrath, that all roads lead to Rome. There is salvation in no other (Acts 4:12). Many would like to tell you that Jesus is one of many ways. To hold to this "nice" view is popular, but in the end nullifies Jesus's own words and, ultimately, Christianity in its entirety. You just can't get around it. People don't like the claim to exclusivity, but it isn't merely the claim of Christians; it is the claim of Christ. Any other gospel is no gospel at all (Gal 1:6-9).

According to the Bible, Jesus's death and resurrection served as payment for our sin. With this payment, God "would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom 3:26). That was the point. That was the accomplishment. Some will try to tell you that Jesus was not human, but merely appeared human. Won't work. Some will tell you He was merely human and not actually divine. Won't work. Some will tell you that He was a good man, but not a perfect man -- no such man ever existed. Won't work. Some will tell you that He was one of many Sons of God. Won't work. Many will complain that the Christian claim of exclusivity is unfair and unwarranted. Won't work. Change any of these components, and you destroy the basis and structure of Christianity.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Essential Christianity - The Nature of Man

I already indicated that absolutely essential to becoming a Christian is the need to recognize the need for a Savior. We call it the "sin condition". Fine. If you don't have a sin problem, you don't need Christ. Simple as that. But there is more to the Nature of Man that, while not necessary to becoming a Christian, is essential to Christianity.

Christianity stands in stark opposition to the prevailing notion of the world that people are generally good. So stark is this opposition that it becomes not merely opposition, but actually opposite. Remembering that the first essential component of Christianity is the Scriptures, let's look at what God's Word has to say about the nature of Man.

According to the Bible, God doesn't have a lot of good things to say about Natural Man. Adam, the first Man, was created "good" (Gen 1:31). He was made with the ability to choose to do good and with the ability to choose not to. In this, he only had one bad choice he could make. God commanded "Don't eat of the tree" and that was the only possible bad choice Adam could make. And, of course, he made it. After that, the Bible says, "just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned" (Rom 5:12). Indeed, the Bible says of Natural Man that "the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen 8:21), that he is "dead in sin" (Eph 2:1), "blinded by the god of this world" (2 Cor 4:4), and worse. He isn't basically good. He is unrighteous (Rom 3:10), hostile to God (Rom 8:7), prone to supressing the truth (Rom 1:18), and not doing any good at all (Rom 3:12). Man is, at his core, evil. He doesn't merely do evil. He doesn't, out of his basic nature, have the ability to choose to do good. David wrote, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psa 51:5). That is, since Adam this has been the condition of all humans born (with the sole exception of Christ, but that will come later.) It isn't an acquired condition; it is a birth condition. We're not sinners because we sin. We sin because we're sinners. It's in our nature.

This concept is called "Original Sin" by the theologians. It refers to the sin nature. It refers to the fact that Man, on the inside, is inclined only to evil from birth and it is only the intervention of God that prevents him from being as bad as he possibly can be.

Recovering from this condition is outside of the capabilities of the human being. We serve the creature rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25). We cannot comprehend spiritual things (1 Cor 2:14). Our hearts -- that innermost being -- are so deceitful and desperately wicked that we cannot even comprehend it (Jer 17:9). Absolutely essential, then, to Christianity is the fact that human beings are rotten at their core and no amount of self help will solve that problem. Without this grave problem, there is no need for the Gospel -- the good news. And the more serious that you see this problem is, the bigger that good news becomes.

There is another aspect to the Nature of Man that is fundamental to Christianity. It is stated at the outset. "God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness'" (Gen 1:26). Human beings are unique among creation in that we alone are made in the image of God. This gives an intrinsic value to human beings that no other creation has. Because of this particular aspect, God commands, "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image" (Gen 9:6). We have tarnished that image by our sin condition, but God still demands that we are to recognize that we are made in His image and we are to honor that image. It is the basis of human rights endowed by the Creator. And it is essential to Christianity.

Thus, two fundamental essentials to Christianity are these two facts. We are made in the image of God and, as such, have an applied value given by God. That informs such necessary concepts as murder and abortion. And we are, from birth, inclined to sin. That makes the Gospel such good news, the death and resurrection of Christ so glorious, and the lies of the world around us that say otherwise so devious.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Essential Christianity - God

We know that the necessary belief to enter Christianity is a belief in "the Lord Jesus Christ" with all that includes. Thus, an obvious essential belief for Christianity is a belief in God. At the outset, that is sufficient. But there are, within that belief, some further necessary components that must be included in order for it to be called "Christianity" and not something else.

First and perhaps most obvious, we must remember that God is one. God repeatedly reminds us that He is the only one (Deut 4:35, 39; 1 Kings 8:60; Isa 45:5, 6, 16, 18, 22; Mark 12:32). Fundamental to Christianity is monotheism. He is the only one. He isn't like any other. Any claim to the contrary is a claim to the contrary, a denial of this foundational claim about the God of Christianity.

The Bible claims that "what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse" (Rom 1:19-20). God is visible in His creation. And the Bible is clear that God has a clearly overarching characteristic in His divine nature: holiness.

The Bible claims for God a unique version of this attribute. Not once but twice the Bible claims that God is not just holy, but He is "holy, holy, holy" (Isa 6:3; Rev 4:8). This repetition isn't merely stylistic. It is a Hebraism that raises the power of the term from simply "holy" to "holy, holier, holiest" or, perhaps in an English version, "holy, holy, holy!" It defines God in very special ways. This "holy" means that He is above all evil. He isn't touched by it. He is set apart from sin. But beyond that, He is set apart from everything. He is ... not "us". He is separate. There is no one like God (Exo 15:11; 2 Sam 7:22; Micah 7:18). We are in His image, but He is not like us (Psa 50:21). Any attempt, then, to bring God down to our size is a mistake, a failure to grasp the holiness of God. This holiness of God is basic to Christianity. Any God offered in the arena of beliefs that is not holy, that is not pure, that is not set apart from sin, that is not above and beyond humanity is not the God of Christianity.

Another theme running throughout the Bible is the trinitarian nature of God. God is one, but He is one in three persons -- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. By "persons" we mean more like "faces" rather than three gods. We are not tritheists -- three gods -- nor are we modalists. Modalists argue that God exists in three forms, one at a time. In the Old Testament He was YHWH, Jehovah. In the Gospels He was Jesus. Today He is the Holy Spirit. This is error (and incapable of being maintained either by Scripture or by reason). God is a Trinity, three Persons of one essence. The Bible has massive amounts of references to God as Trinity (without using the word). Father, Son, and Spirit are coexisting (existing at the same time), coequal, distinct, but not separate. God as Triune is basic to Christianity. What I'm saying here is that the belief in the Trinity is essential to Christianity; a full understanding of that Trinity is not. Remember, God is holy, holy, holy, which means, among other things, set apart in ways we cannot fathom. The finite cannot fully grasp the infinite. So belief in His nature as three in one is essential, but a full understanding of that nature is not.

There are many more basic attributes of God that are clear in Scripture and necessary in our agreement about the God we hold as the one God of Christianity. He is Sovereign and Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent. He is love and He is good -- perfect. God is transcendent -- above all -- and imminent -- present with us. He is spirit, not simply physical like us. He is self-existent (something no created thing can claim). He is immutable (a necessary attribute given His omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence); He cannot change.

In summary, then, absolutely essential to Christianity is the belief in God. He is one and only. A "god among many" may be a popular belief among various religions, even some claiming to be "Christian", but this is not compatible with Scripture nor with Christianity. He is Holy. Not merely "holy" -- separate from sin -- but "Holy, Holy, Holy", set apart, above all, not like us. He is a Triune God, of one essence and three Persons -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- who coexist, are coequal, are distinct but not separate. And He maintains attributes, some of which we humans can reflect like love and goodness and some which only He possesses like Omniscience and Immutability. This God is one of a kind. This God is found in Christianity alone. This God is essential, without which you don't have Christianity at all.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Essential Christianity - Step One

So far I've covered what it takes to become a Christian. Someone sees the house that is Christianity and asks, "How do I get in?" I've given the basic beliefs necessary to get in that door. There is, first, the recognition of the need -- the sin condition -- and, second, the person and work of Jesus. It is a specific Jesus here. He lived and died and rose again. He died for our sins (necessary for solving the "sin condition" problem) and He rose from the dead. Placing one's faith in that Jesus is necessary for entering the house we call "Christianity". That would be "essential Christianity" if the question is "What must I do to be saved?" And now we move on from here.

The next question is regarding the primary structure of this "house". What is it made of? What holds it up? You see, in every structure there are necessary components and there are ... decorative components. Sticking with my house metaphor, there are foundations and "load-bearing beams" and just stuff put up for convenience or comfort. What we're looking at from here on out are the necessary components, the parts without which the house will not stand. Essential Christianity.

This "house" metaphor isn't my own. The Bible uses it, too. Paul refers to Christians as "members of the household of God" which, he goes on to say, are "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone" (Eph 2:19-20). So, at the outset, it is clear that our "house" called "Christianity" has a foundation of "the apostles and prophets" with Christ as the cornerstone. (Don't I have a clever way with words?)

The cornerstone of a building is key. It is the starting point. For the Church, that would be Christ. It is the defining point. It stakes the location in a certain point and it provides direction for the entire building. Placed first, this cornerstone indicates where the foundation begins and which way the walls run. As the cornerstone defines the building, Jesus defines Christianity. And in other places Christ Himself is our foundation, so we'll need to spend time there.

But there is this foundation, the part laid after the cornerstone is laid and the building is defined but before the building is built. The foundation is the base on which the building stands. And Paul indicates that the base of the building of Christianity is "the apostles and prophets". What is that to us?

The reference to the apostles and prophets is a reference to biblical history. It goes back to the beginning and calls up every single messenger sent by God to Man. It includes the Apostles (capital "A") who were specially called by Christ as disciples in His day and commissioned by Him to carry out His continued work. These, of course, are no longer alive today. So what is our foundation today? The foundation of the building we call Christianity, then, is the Word of God, the Scriptures, the Bible.

The Bible we have today is a translation of original texts that are, of a necessity, God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16-17). They were not merely "inspired" as we might use the term today, but actually breathed by the Holy Spirit to His authorized messengers who, in their own words and under the supervision of the Spirit, wrote down what God wanted His people to know. As such, these texts were infallible -- could not be wrong -- and inerrant -- had no mistakes. The Bible is the only source of authority in matters of faith and practice for Christianity. If it is true that the foundation of the Church is the apostles and prophets, this position of the authority and reliability of Scripture is not negotiable. It is essential. Those who argue otherwise only end up arguing to tear up the foundation on which Christianity stands. Remove the authority and/or reliability of the Bible, and you remove any genuine authority or reliability in and of Christianity at all. It isn't a point of discussion. It is an absolute necessity. Just as a house without a foundation cannot stand, Christianity without the proven Word of God (Prov 30:5) cannot stand.

There are arguments for the reliability of Scripture. They are not a few. They are multiple. They offer answers to skeptics. They give reasons to believe that the Bible is indeed the infallible, inerrant Word of God. I'm not offering any of them here (except, obviously, to link to a few). My aim here is not to prove the claim, but to list the essentials of Christianity without which Christianity will not stand. What, as a believer, must a person affirm to continue in Christianity? First and foremost -- step one, so to speak -- there must be an authoritative source upon which to base all these claims of Christ and Christianity. That source is the Bible, God's tried and tested Word. With it, we can confirm or deny the rest. Without it, we have nothing but conjecture. The first essential Christian belief, then, is the reliability of Scripture which serves as the foundation of Christianity.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Essential Christianity - The Gospel

I offered Paul's response to the Philippian jailer's question, "What must I do to be saved?", as a bare-bones explanation of what you must believe in order to be saved. That's fine, perhaps, but probably not sufficiently clear. Perhaps we could go with Paul's formula for the Gospel:
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also (1 Cor 5:1-8).
This is Paul's "Gospel", his "good news". This is his minimalist version, the necessary items. But first it is absolutely essential to realize one fact of key importance. What makes it "good news"? Without that starting point, the rest makes no sense. And that starting point was in the Philippian jailer's question (whether or not he actually intended it). "What must I do to be saved?" requires the need to be saved. It first requires the recognition that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. And that problem is sin. Start there.

Having acknowledged our failure to measure up to God's demands and our inability to fix it, now we're ready for good news, the Gospel. And what is that good news?
1) Christ died for our sins.
2) That death was "according to the Scriptures".
3) He really died (not spiritually or figuratively or ...), evidenced by the fact that He was buried.
4) He rose again. That resurrection wasn't spiritual or mythological, but genuine, as evidenced by the many who actually saw Him.
Now, take any single component of that away, and you'll find that you no longer have a Gospel. His death had to be genuine. It had to be the specific one foretold in the Scripture. Or this was not the Messiah, not the Jesus in whom we need to trust. His death had to have the singular purpose of paying for our sins. Some have argued that He simply gave an example. That's not sufficient to retain the "good news". We are in a sin condition, remember? Without proper payment, that sin condition isn't remedied. He had to die for our sins. He had to be buried. That, of course, is key to the "according to the Scriptures" claim. And He had to rise again from the dead. Buy into a real Jesus who really died and even died for your sin, and you've got a decent thing going, but not ultimately good news because, as Paul points out later in the chapter, if He never rose again, there is no victory over death (which, by the way, is the singular result of the sin problem we are trying to remedy), and any faith in that Jesus is in vain. No, He had to rise again, genuinely, physically, with witnesses.

There you have it. "What must I do to be saved?" "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ." That faith is premised on the need of a sinner incapable of saving him or herself. It is confidence placed in the historical Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, the Master. It is faith that He died for our sins, really died, really was buried, and actually, physically came back to life three days later according to a large number of genuine witnesses. These are the essential beliefs required for a person to cross over from "unbeliever" to "believer", to go from "non-Christian" to "Christian". Anything less is not saving faith.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

God Wins

As we all know, America is going to hell in a handbasket ... or, at least, something like it. Church attendance is on the decline. Religion is on its way out. There is the reported "rise of the Nones" where more and more are claiming to be "spiritual" but not "religious". We know this. And, as it turns out, we appear to be wrong.

Rodney Stark is a sociologist at Baylor University. He is reporting that, apparently, church attendance in America is now at an all-time high. Wait! We didn't think that was so, did we?

And Stark isn't alone. Last May the Washington Post reported the results of a new Gallup poll. While 77% believe that religion is losing its influence in American life, 75% think we'd be better off if we were more religious. That's right! Three out of four think religious influence is a good thing. In fact, Gallup indicated that around 1 in 3 irreligious folk reported that it would be positive for society if more Americans were religious.

Here, this is pretty simple. Imagine you're a white woman walking in a black neighborhood on a deserted street all alone at night. Up ahead you see four black youths come out of a building and start walking toward you. Would it make any difference in how you would feel if you knew they just came from a Bible study? (A question from Dennis Prager.)

A life touched by religion is generally a good thing. A life touched by Christ is a new thing. And despite what you may think, God is never out of control. "I will build My church," Jesus said (Matt 16:18). No effort of Man or Satan is going to stop Him from accomplishing what He intends (Job 42:2). That is why we can say with Scripture the repeated message, "Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain" (Rev 3:2; James 5:8; Heb 12:12; 2 Thess 2:17). Good news for Christians who care in a world that doesn't.
Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place (2 Cor 2:14).

Saturday, August 10, 2013

More Highly Than You Ought

Paul wrote, "I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment" (Rom 12:3). Now, we all know people who are arrogant and self-centered. But many of us have a poor self-image, low self-esteem. We don't suffer from that problem, do we?

Here's what the Bible says about us. On the plus side, God made us in His image and, because of that fact, we have an intrinsic value (Gen 9:6). He shows His favor on us, so we have no right to think more lowly of ourselves than we ought to think. To do so is ... arrogance. "Yes, sure, God says we are valued because He made us in His image and God gives common grace (favor) to all, but He's wrong. We're not worth that much."

On the other hand, God says that "the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen 8:21). The Bible tells us that Natural Man is hostile to God (Rom 8:7), dead in sin (Eph 2:1), and unable to comprehend spiritual things (1 Cor 2:14). On our own we are not righteous and not even good (Rom 3:10-12). But our big problem is deeper than that. As creatures, we have a natural tendency to worship and serve "the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom 1:25). We are, at our cores, self-centered. Despite our inherent deceitful hearts (Jer 17:9), we tend to judge everything by our own desires, our own desires and pride (1 John 2:16), including God. We tend to attempt to bend our world to our lusts.

So, is our problem that some of us think too little of ourselves, or is the real problem that we all tend to think more highly of ourselves than we ought? I suppose the answer to that would depend on whether or not you are going to accept the biblical description or go with the one that is provided by a deceitful and sick heart.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Essential Christianity - What Makes a Christian

There are, in our world, two categories of people. There are those who are Christians and there are those who are not. Before proceeding with the question of what doctrines are essential to Christianity, we must first figure out what makes a Christian. Or, in the words of the Philippian jailer, "What must I do to be saved?" Clearly what makes a Christian is not the same thing as that of what Christianity is constructed. Just as a door is the way into a house, the house still has necessary structures not necessary for entering but necessary for holding it together. So what is the door?

We might draw our answer from that very jailer's question. Paul gave an answer that should be sufficient. The problem, of course, is that we run the risk of taking it too lightly. So what was Paul's answer? "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved" (Acts 16:31). Easy, right? "Believe!" End of story. But be careful. If you conclude that "believe" is the end of the story, you weren't paying attention. You see, "believe in Jesus" is not sufficient cause for salvation. Someone told me, "I believe in Jesus" and went on to qualify it with "my Mexican gardener." Humor, of course, but you see the point. Yes, we need to believe, but believe in what? Not just any Jesus. So who is it in whom we must place our faith in order to be saved?

The text says "the Lord Jesus Christ". Each word is significant. The first is "the", indicating "the one and only." "There is there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). First, then, is the necessary belief that there is no other. One way. Not a way, but only one.

Who is that one way? That would be Jesus. Well, we're clear on that, aren't we? Perhaps. There are, however, those who claim to be Christians without believing that any such person ever existed. Jesus was a historical person. He was the son of Mary. He grew up in Nazareth. He was a carpenter. That Jesus. No other. Nor was He a fictional character, a myth, a story. He was a real person, and if you aren't convinced it is a real person in which you are placing your faith, you aren't going to be saved.

And there are other people who claim that He was someone else. He was a prophet or one of many sons of God. That's not the same Jesus. That's some other Jesus. No, this one is specific, and no other will do. He was born, the only Son of God, lived in Israel until He was crucified, was buried and rose again. All of this is necessary. This is the "Jesus" in view, and no other will do.

Of course, we all know that Jesus was His first name and Christ was His last, right? No, of course not. Christ was not a name; it was a title. Jesus -- the One in whom you are placing your faith for salvation -- is the Jewish Messiah. He was the One foretold of old. He came as promised and will come again as promised as King. He was the Suffering Servant and will be the Triumphant King of kings. That Jesus. Jesus, the Christ. Not just the carpenter, but the promised Messiah.

And I've neatly danced around a very important term in the whole thing, haven't I? One other key descriptive from Paul is found in the second word of the phrase. It is "Lord". The Greek is kurios. It refers to the supreme authority, the controller, the master. The whole notion of placing your faith in a "Buddy Jesus" is not found here. The idea of trusting in a "laughing Jesus" isn't included. No, this Jesus, this Christ, in whom we are going to trust to provide salvation, is Lord. If you're not ready for a Master, you're not ready to be saved. All of this is found in the formula, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved."

Can you believe in another Jesus, a Jesus who isn't Lord, a Jesus who was a myth, a Jesus who was not the Jewish Messiah, some other Jesus, and be saved? No, absolutely essential to becoming a Christian is faith placed in this particular Jesus and no other. Essential.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Essential Christianity - Intro

There is a fairly famous phrase very often attributed to Augustine:
In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.
As it turns out, it wasn't likely Augustine. But, frankly, it doesn't really matter who said it. It appears to most of us to be a rather wise saying. We need to stand on certain absolute essentials. We need to discuss but not divide over non-essentials. And all of it needs to be done in biblical love. Right.

So we step out to find unity in essentials ... and discover we don't really know what they are or even what we mean when we say "essentials". Try it sometime. Discuss with someone what the essentials are in Christianity, and you'll likely end up with an endless discussion because we're not sure what we're talking about and, therefore, can't agree on what they are.

So let me start out by saying that we are generally talking about two different things when we talk about essentials. And that is why there is such disagreement. We're talking past each other. Here's how it will go.

"So, I think that one of the clear essentials of Christianity is the Trinity."

"What? Well, of course, the Trinity is important, but did the thief on the cross believe in the Trinity? How can it be essential?"

And without realizing it, we're talking about two different things. First, there are the essentials of becoming a Christian. What does it take to be a "Christian" instead of a "non-Christian"? If Christians are "believers" set apart from "unbelievers", what must be believed? But there is a second perspective. Beyond that first transition from "outside" to "inside", there is the structure called "Christianity". What are the essentials of that structure?

So, as it turns out, very often when we set out to discuss the essentials of the faith, we are talking about two different things. Imagine a house. The first question is "How do I get in?" The second question is "What is essential to the house?" And clearly these are not the same question. So it is understandable why we find such disagreement.

The problem, of course, is that they appear to be linked. The notion is "These are things you must believe and if you don't you aren't a Christian." This, unfortunately, fails to take into account the very life-like process of Christianity itself. To become a Christian, you must be "born again". There is a new birth. This implies infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood -- all the normal processes of any given life. The theological term for this process is "sanctification". And it is a process, not an event. What does a child need to know in order to be a child? Not much at the outset. Those essentials -- food, clothing, hygiene, etc. -- are provided by someone who knows. But if a child gets to be too old and doesn't know these essentials of human living, that person dies. So there are things required to be human and there are things required to maintain a human. There are things required to become a Christian and there are things required to maintain Christianity.

Given this, I think it is very important to figure out the Essentials of Christianity. It should be approached from both angles. What must I do to be saved? What are the absolutely necessary components that make up Christianity? Keep in mind, then, as we go through this that these are two different questions. It will make the trip much easier to handle.