Posts Tagged ‘church’

Faith and Works

September 23, 2012 1 comment

During my seminary education I struggled deeply with the relationship between faith and works. My previous background as a minster to young people in a megachurch setting and my dedication to learning in a vehemently Reformed graduate school have both emphasized that great tenant of the Protestant faith, that we are saved by faith alone. I have questioned the legitimacy of this belief.

I am not saying that I take issue with justification by faith alone, although I believe we are justified by grace, not faith. But this is not the problem I am dealing with. I do affirm that we are only justified by God’s grace through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. To argue contrary falls in the realm I am comfortable with calling heresy. However, justification is not salvation, it is the beginning. Salvation does not occur solely in some heavenly book, apart from our earthly life, for Jesus spoke of salvation as being born again (John 3), a totally transforming experience. Salvation is holistic in its effect. Protestants have traditionally called this part of salvation sanctification, but I don’t believe it is useful to separate justification and sanctification, as theology has done in the minds of many Christians throughout the ages but especially lately. Justification simply doesn’t happen apart from sanctification. Justification may occur instantaneously at some point, and sanctification is an ongoing process, but they are both present in the “saved.”

I believe that this division of terms has led to bad theology and even worse behavior in the church. In my classes I encountered seminarians who are astoundingly prideful, who verbally abuse both faculty and female students, who cheat on a regular basis, and display all sorts of greed and avarice that would make the most depraved men blush. Put bluntly, some of the worst people I spend time with are leaders (or future leaders) of the church. All of the people I have witnessed, even the vilest (and yes there are a few I would call vile) are convinced not only of their own salvation but of their ability to lead other Christians. They tend to be extremely defensive of the doctrine of salvation through faith, and mention of works elicits condemnations of “papist heresy.”

It would be easy to end the post here. I could just be pointing a finger and yelling “hypocrites!” But that is not my intention. I earnestly believe that one of the reasons these young (mostly) men act and think the way they do is because they are simply a product of modern evangelical teaching. This theology is a reductionist view of Reformed teaching that states “its not about what you do, its about what He did.” And while that is a nice sentiment, it is just not what Jesus said. Jesus spent most of his time teaching his followers what to do, not how to formulate theology. When it came to being “saved” Jesus seemed far more concerned with actions than beliefs. I don’t know that Jesus would actually separate beliefs from actions like that. He seemed to teach throughout his ministry that actions show true beliefs. I think this is an important point for one practical reason, I don’t know what you (or anyone else) really believe. The best I can do is look at your actions and try to discern your beliefs based on those actions. Is that fair? Jesus seemed to think so.

Jesus told his followers to judge teachers by their “fruit” (works).

You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
(Matthew 7:16-20)

But does this negate the belief that we are saved by our statement of faith? Jesus says in the next verses…

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
(Matthew 7:21-23)

This teaching about the coming judgment shows that Christ is more concerned with our acts (as true confessions of faith) than our words (which can state anything). Put another way, I can call myself a tiger, the fact that I am typing an essay right now, and was born to two human parents, etc., etc., places serious doubt on my claim. In the same way calling Jesus “Lord” doesn’t make is so any more than I can define my species with mere words. So who is saved if not the ones who declare that they are based on their statement of faith? The above text states that it is those who do the will of God (works). Is Jesus teaching justification by works? No, that language would be completely foreign to him. He is looking at the big picture of salvation, not the pieces that form it. If sanctification and justification are bound to one another, this makes perfect sense.

Jesus’ half-brother James puts it plainly…

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
(James 2:17-24)

James hits on several key points here:

  1. Statement of belief in God is insufficient, even Satan knows who God is.
  2. The example of Abraham (Paul’s favorite reference to faith) acted (works) as a result of his faith.
  3. Faith without works is dead, useless, etc.

I don’t think that any of my peers at the seminary would overtly argue against this, but their actions do. Evangelical Christians (more than other types of Christians) seem to be so wary of mixing justification and sanctification that they would hesitantly agree that a “saved” person could act in any way he or she pleased, since salvation was independent of works. I have even heard it boasted that a sinner as great of Hitler may have been saved, because our God is so great. Foolishness! How could the saved man bear such copious amounts of such bad fruit and know God? While it is true that before conversion there is no sin so great it cannot be wiped away (just look at Paul, murderer of Christians) after being saved we are made new, and cannot go on in our previous ways. Paul would agree (Ephesians 2), as would John (1 John), and the rest. I don’t even need to mention Jesus, who made this one of the cornerstones of his teaching.

To what degree does the sin leave our lives? This I do not know. My reading of Scripture tells me that I should be sinning a lot less than I do. The same sentiment haunted John Wesley for decades as he tried to reconcile plain biblical understanding with his practical experience.

To sum up, I believe that the dichotomy between faith and works is unjustified. Faith and works always travel together, and in the practical life of the believer and teacher, we should always remember this. We cannot go along sinning without concern, convinced that it doesn’t really matter because we are saved by faith alone. Faith never comes alone. I believe we should try to live like the woman caught in adultery, who after encountering Jesus told, “You are forgiven, go and sin no more.”


Don’t Want to Be an American Christian

September 9, 2012 4 comments

I don’t want to be an American Christian.

I don’t want to make public events out of prayer when Jesus told me to pray privately.

I don’t want to go to war for revenge when Jesus told me to forgive my enemies.

I don’t want to “help” the poor help themselves when Jesus told me to care for the least of these.

I don’t want to tell non-Christians how they should live when Jesus told me to love my neighbor.

I don’t want to withhold my riches from the poor to protect my future when Jesus told me I could die tonight.

I don’t want to lie to get ahead when Jesus told me to tell the truth.

I don’t want to hate those who “seek to destroy our way of life” when Jesus told me to love my enemies.

I don’t want to believe that America is the only hope for the world when Jesus told me that he is.

I don’t want to be an American Christian.

I want to be a Jesus Christian.

Do Christians Actually Like Christ?

September 3, 2012 2 comments

Jesus and the crossI was teaching Sunday School in Birmingham, Alabama while completing my seminary education when the brutal truth of modern Christianity hit me. I was doing lessons on the teachings of Jesus, trying to reorient people who had lived their lives in church to think about what Jesus actually said, rather than the conventional wisdom that churches sometimes pass of as divine revelation. I believe I was talking specifically about the part of Matthew 25 where Jesus talks about the sheep and the goats and the future judgement of all people. I said it as clearly as I understood it– Jesus will judge us based how we treat the poorest and “least” among us. Jesus’ words seemed clear to me, and while the majority of the group seemed to accept Jesus’ teaching at face value, one person couldn’t contain his disagreement.

“But what are we actually supposed to do?” he asked.

“Uh, take care of the least among us?” I answered tentatively.

“Well I know what he said, but we can’t really do that. It’s just not realistic. Or fair to us,” he once again volunteered. “I know Jesus said that, but what should we really do?”

I was for a rare moment in my life, speechless. Although I had taken part in many conversations where people had rejected one of Jesus’ teachings or another, I had never had someone say it so overtly. The person who protested what was clear to me was a person who had grown up in the church, his father read Scripture from the pulpit nearly every week, and he had been involved in the higher echelons of church leadership since he was very young.

The young man didn’t come to my class much after that. But the exchange stuck with me.

Some years earlier, when I was a lowly undergraduate myself, I had an unpleasant exchange with a professor at my conservative Baptist university. Our point of debate was allegiance to Jesus above all else. The professor told me quite matter of factually that if he ever found himself in some foreign land, he would deny Jesus if it meant saving his own life. I was floored. Although still a young Christian, I had come to understand that our lives were to be for Jesus’ service, and throughout history that has meant death for thousands of martyrs. Moreover we should not expect to be above such a sacrifice.

My professor scoffed at my argument. “That is just not realistic. That is idealism, and I have no stomach for idealists.” I never really spoke to him after that.

Over the years I have watched many Christian leaders call people to “moderate” their allegiance to Jesus, to take his more radical ideas with a grain of salt. Ironically Jesus seemed to indicate in John 3 that being born again, a given concept for most Christians, was the most radical of all his teachings.

Although it has been said by many others many times before, I do not believe that our domesticated brand of Christianity has any actual similarity to the brand that Jesus lived and died for.

I wonder what would happen if we actually believed all that stuff Jesus said.




Glory Versus Grace

August 19, 2012 1 comment

One day while I was in seminary, a sat on a bench and had lunch with a young Christian leader who had entered during the same semester as me. He ran a rather large parachurch ministry at a public university in our city and often spoke at various churches. I had been to his house and he to mine and we both knew each others wife. We were both sharing ministry stories when the subject of the homeless ministry I ran for several years came up. After recalling several anecdotes from my time there, my friend spoke something I was not expecting.

“I don’t give money to the homeless,” he said in a very assertive voice. “If they don’t earn it, they shouldn’t have it.”

“Well,” I responded, “I did it because God freely gave me a great gift when I did not deserve it and in return I just freely give to others what little I have. It’s just my way of modeling the gospel.”

“Don’t give me that,” he retorted. “You did something for your salvation, so did I. I don’t know what we did, but we did earn it a little.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I had never heard a Christian leader say out-rightly that we “earn” our salvation. The lunch hour was coming to a close and our conversation was finished. I don’t know if it stuck with him, but it stuck with me.

The greatest threat to Western Christianity is not encroaching secularism, not radical Islam, nor the “homosexual agenda.” The greatest threat to every Christian and Christian church in the world we live in is the neglect of grace. Since mankind first left the Garden of Eden, way back in Genesis 3, we have resolved to reject the grace of God in favor of what we believe could be accomplished through our own works.

When God created humans it was an act of grace. Our very existence cannot be credited to ourselves, any more than I should take credit over my mother for my physical birth. Yet for aeons we have deluded ourselves into thinking we can thrive autonomously. It should not be surprising that humans think this way, but what should be utterly shocking is that the Church grows ever more seduced by the idea that there is no need for God’s grace. Jesus spent his ministry fighting against the notion that the people of God were born naturally (see John 3, 7,9 etc.) and that by their works could they save themselves.

Jesus told the story about the labors in the field who verbally attacked the owner for paying the same generous wage to those who did little work as those who did much more. Jesus’ message was simply stated in the owner’s response to their criticism. “Is it not my money that I am free to with as I want? Why do you begrudge me for being generous to them even when you have received your reward?” Our human nature is so wrapped in our own merit that we cannot accept the fact that God gives his grace freely.

While most churchgoers in America will readily answer that grace is the reason they are saved when asked directly, probing deeper often unearths an underlying belief that they somehow earned God’s favor wither by their actions or their ingrained nature. Put another way, many seem to think, “I earned or it or my people did.”

We often speak of Christianity as not about what we have to do, but what Jesus did. Yet we hold to countless formulas for what one must do to be saved. Did you say the “sinner’s prayer?” Did you walk down the aisle? Do you go to church?Did you repent from swearing and drinking? Have you done enough to be saved? Many Christians I know will tell you the date they were “saved.” It was September 8th, 199… when I trusted, when I accepted, when I was baptized, when I made a decision, when I, I, I. Why is the nexus of our salvation based on a moment when we did something, instead of the moment that Jesus did something? When people ask me when I was saved, I tell them, “about 33AD.”

jesus' graceI don’t mean to be flippant about this, but this is a serious error in theology that has last repercussions on how we live our lives. It was this “Theology of Glory” as a former professor of mine so often labeled it, that led the Catholic Church in decline during the Medieval Ages and sparked the Reformation. Reformer Martin Luther began his separation from the Catholic Church because of the very notion that God alone is our salvation; we did nothing to earn it. Yet over the years, Christians, seeking to control others and to define the parameters of unique individuals’ walks with God have reverted little by little back to the same theology of works they supposedly grew out of.

Today this deep-rooted mindset affects all Christians who live by this myth of self-salvation. A person of this error sees non-Christians as bad, the poor as lazy, the different as wrong. They clothe themselves in their own self-righteousness, at the same time piously claiming that all glory belongs to God alone. In their hearts they believe that because of their actions, or because of where they came from, they are something special. Everyone else in the world who is not part of this select group is dammed because they failed to do something about it. This type of self glory does not leave room for the humility that comes only from knowing that you were saved by God because of God. Only when the self is removed from one’s understanding of salvation (and I mean salvation in the holistic sense) is there room to love others. Only when one knows that God is the source of salvation can one truly understand that they are connected to all those around them. There is not an “us” and “them.” There is only “we.” And we are saved by God alone. My prayer is not that you do anything today, but that God fills you with the presence of his grace.

John Piper Thinks I’m Going to Hell

November 9, 2011 1 comment

John Piper John Piper thinks I am going to hell. No, he didn’t witness me murdering an enemy (at least I don’t think he did) or anything else that is out of the realm of normal sin. I don’t believe he saw me blaspheme the Holy Spirit or anything unforgivable like that. In fact, his problem doesn’t even seem to be with me. John Piper seems to have a problem with how I was saved, or at least how I think I was saved.

Let me explain. John Piper, one of the most influential leaders of the Neo-Reformed movement currently en vogue in conservative American Evangelicalism and the sponsors of my very own theological education, takes issue with dreams. Specifically, he says that he “suspicious… big time” of Muslims seeing Jesus in their dreams and converting to Christianity. While the angels in heaven rejoice at a single lost sheep being found, John’s not quite ready to break out the champagne quite yet, and not just because there are Baptists in the room. Piper’s problem, theologically speaking, is with the plan of salvation seemingly at work. He argues that people must hear the gospel to be saved, and this requires a human effort to preach to the person before he or she can be saved. He says in a recent talk to pastors,

“The Gospel needs to be heard. How shall they believe unless they hear and how shall they hear without a preacher and how shall they preach unless they be sent. That’s a pretty significant argument in Romans 10.”

His argument is simple, in order to be saved, you must first be preached to.

The problem for me is that long before I ever attended a Protestant church or heard their articulation of the gospel, a voice spoke to me from some unseen source and imprinted upon me some truths: There is a God, Jesus is God, I should be saved from my own hell but cannot do it myself, God offers needed salvation freely by his own grace. These are ideas that I accepted as fact long before I ever picked up a Bible or hung out with Christians. So radical were these ideas to my cultural background that I believed I was the only one who knew these things. Imagine my surprise some years later when a friend invited me to church only to find out that there was a whole religion based on the ideas I had carried with me. I am a disciple as a result of direct, supernatural revelation; I am not a convert because of a preacher’s words.

So what am I to do? Should I abandon my call to ministry because I can’t possibly be saved. Should I go to a Baptist church on revival Sunday and wait until the end to run down the aisle and tearfully throw myself at the preacher’s feet. I suppose I am going to have to get baptized again. Third time’s the charm you know. Perhaps I just need to critically examine Pastor Piper’s claim.

Having been educated in circles highly influenced Piper, I know that Romans is a pretty significant book for him. I know that many of his tradition view salvation through the lens of Romans as a universal truth. Evidence for this theology is granted when one simply asks, “what must I do to be saved?” Rarely will a Neo-Reformed take a person to any of the myriad occasions when someone asked Jesus the very same question, rather they will be taken down a Romans’ Road of disjointed verses that provide a simple set of propositions, that if a person agrees to, assures them of salvation. The problem with that view, is that the book letter to the Romans is a particular communication regarding a particular situation in time. Of course it is inspired and there is a great deal we should learn from it, especially the nature of sin and salvation, but to make it the exclusive plan of salvation for the world is just wrong. Romans 10, as quoted by Piper as the basis for his thought being discussed, is a great admonition for the propagation of the gospel throughout the world. But it is unfair to the text, especially in the context of the whole Bible, to declare that it presents the exclusive path of salvation. I think the writer Paul would agree; but if Piper is right, Paul is not saved anyway so who cares what he thinks.

The main problem I see with Piper’s thinking is that he falls off a logical cliff that Neo-Reformed theology likes to walk perilously close to. By turning Romans into God’s tract of salvation, and pouring over each individual verse with an a priori understanding that each individual verse is a stand alone universal truth for all time, we are forced to turn salvation into an equation which must contain specific parts. When this hermeneutic is applied to Romans 10, one has no choice to declare that people can’t be saved unless they have heard, and that they cannot hear without a preacher. Therefore a preacher becomes neccessary for the salvation of another. The problem with this thinking of course is that human effort plays an essential role in a person’s salvation. Salvation is no longer a free gift from God gotten without our merit, but has now become dependent on someone else’s merit, namely the preacher! Put another way, the fate of my soul depends not only on God’s grace or my response, but a third person who must be faithful to preach to me. This is the “Theology of Glory” that Martin Luther fought so hard against to establish “Reformed Theology.” I feel the need to say that while John Piper has said and continues to say many theologically insightful things, in this case his suspicions are wrong, proving that even good preachers can sometimes produce bad theology.

Under the direction and lordship of Jesus Christ, there are many paths to salvation. Each one of us has our story, and God hasn’t even finished writing most of them. When we equate our experience with the exclusive truth of God, we run the danger of wandering into the territory of Job, who believed that he could grasp the mind of God, not realizing the meagerness of his own understanding. We do well to take Job’s lesson to heart and not bite off more than we can theologically chew.

Grace for the Community

August 29, 2011 1 comment


I spent this past weekend in community. While camping up in the mountains with a few dozen of my wife’s teammates and their families, I had nothing to do but share life with others. That can be a scary thing.

In my “normal life” I can distract myself with the countless gadgets I know. These gadgets effectively keep me isolated from real community, while at the same time fooling me into thinking that I am “socially networked.” In reality, technological isolation allows me to interact with community on my own terms, keeping it arms length away while dialogues occur in one-sided statements no longer than 120 characters. I have grown comfortable in this. The personal benefits appear immense. My public persona is chosen and directed with all intentioned, allowing for only an intentional self to be displayed. I can even adopt multiple personas to meet the perceived desires of different groups. Michael the pastor can live alongside Michael the comedian with few being any the wiser where the real person lies.

Camping does not afford one this luxury. Everything you are and everything you aren’t is on full display when you are camping. Even if well prepared in advanced, most people can only prepare a few hours worth of persona-based talk and actions. Without the ability to sneak off and replenish the well of image, the facade quickly crumbles. Despite the bugs, heat, and lack of technological entertainment, I think the facade-crumbling closeness of true community is what I dislike most about camping. What a sad revelation.

For years I have been a part of various ministries, all claiming to be authentic communities. Yet in that time I have never felt free to be me. Each church “community” was a carefully crafted image of community, not a true community. Almost every one of those groups had a clear mission statement about who they were as a community. The community was always XYZ, which left very little room for the 23 other letters. This group was a community of families who lived up the American dream and all things wholesome. That group was a rebellous antithesis to the group that spawned and paid for it, an authentic community of gritty people from the (suburban) streets, and please, no one over 30 need apply. The next group was theologically sound and confrontational to an evil world (no matter how much they imitated it). The next was all about love (as long as you fit in). No wonder church hopping is so prevalent. It’s not that I can’t find a church like me, it’s that I am not the same me every week. So I move around to find a community that fits my mood on any given day. The community values homogony, and I just want to fit in.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who ministered against the backdrop of Nazism, sought out community. In a sea of oppression and violence, Christians had to band together for survival. What he discovered was that there was no perfect community, because communities were made of people like me and him, imperfect men and women who struggled with finding spiritual and emotional respite.  In his book Life Together, he explorers not only how community really works,  but explains the danger of longing for the fictional perfection that one never stops hoping to find in community. He calls longing for a perfect (or even better) community idolatry, because we are seeking for more than what God has already given us.

What would it look like if we stopped searching for the better community? Would our churches be places of grace and humility? Would they be welcoming to people who clearly don’t “fit in?” Would pastors and church members stop abandoning the dilapidated city neighborhoods their churches are in for the “perfection” of the suburbs? Would churches cease trying to “fix” America and start showing God’s love to the nation?

I suppose what is most important for me to figure out is whether or not I can let the community suffer by allowing the real me to be a part of it. Can pastor Michael let loose of control long enough that the real Michael, whoever that may be, can come in?

On Certainty and Charity

August 25, 2011 Leave a comment

I am a Christian. I have enough faith in things unseen that I can call myself certain about my beliefs. Put another way, I believe in what I believe. However, I try not to let my certainty interfere with my charity. To me this is a simple matter of striving to be more like Christ. Jesus commanded us to be charitable with others when he taught us the greatest commandment, but never did he command us to be certain. Therefore charity must always take precedence over certainty.

I live in a post-Christian America. I share this nation with many people who do not hold the same beliefs as me. Many of the people I interact with on a daily basis hold to beliefs that contradict my own, and they hold on to these beliefs with the same certainty that I hold on to mine. How then should I respond? I show them what I believe with my words and actions and I defend my beliefs if inquired of them.

Do I attack their beliefs? No. I realize that my beliefs became certain because the Holy Spirit affirmed them to me, not because I was swayed by cleaver arguments on my previous thoughts. I cannot compel the Holy Spirit to do the same for these people anymore than I can command God to make me wealthy. I also remember that it was God’s grace that illuminated his ways to me, not my own work, so I cannot blame any other person for not yet seeing God the way I do. Most importantly, Jesus told me to love them and teach them, not to argue with them weary them.

For a lot of its history, Christianity has been a minority religion. It is only fairly recently that Protestantism (the tradition that I belong to) has held sway over so much of the world and culture. To see how a Christian lives as a minority in a pluralistic world, we have to look back to a time when Christianity was not the religion that dominated the world. Philip Jenkin’s book, The Lost History of Christianity, gives us a glimpse into that world. One person the reader encounters in his book is Timothy of the East. Timothy lived during the rise and domination of Islam in the Middle East. He worked in the Muslim Caliph’s court in Baghdad, as did many Christians. One day the Caliph asked Timothy about his Christian beliefs and how he could live and work for a society of another faith. Timothy, with great insight and tremendous courage told the prince a parable.

We are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house, a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of the people, all become aware of its existence, everyone would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one of a stone or of a bit of earth, but everyone will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those people who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch their hand towards the light, which alone can show what everyone has in hand. The one who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.

Timothy was certain of his beliefs, but he could understand why others believed differently. He understood the reality that not everyone could possibly be right, but that until the light came, there was no sense in compelling certainty. He did not hide his “pearl,” but spoke about it with the princes of land, leaving to God and them whether they would accept his claim to have the true treasure. With his story, Timothy displayed both the certainty and charity that Jesus expected of his followers, and understanding and living this parable would be of great benefit to Jesus’ followers today.

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