Tuesday, May 26, 2009

We are all the Walking Wounded

Have you ever lit a candle or used a lighter in pitch-darkness? Even from a tiny flame, the effect from the light is dramatic. Contrast that with lighting a match in the middle of the day. The flame is kind of pretty, but comparably weak. Now, keep that image in your head, I’ll come back to it later.

“Grace” is one of the key words of my generation of Protestants. This is a great thing. At its heart, the gospel is the account of God’s staggering and unmerited love for humanity. Grace, when correctly understood, leads to heightened devotion to God, as well as heightened love for our neighbors. Simply put, it is impossible to dwell too much on God’s fantastic grace in dealing with the world.

One aspect of this heightened awareness of grace is the move away from “hellfire and brimstone” preaching. Once again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, and I loved it. I still wouldn’t read it from the pulpit now. A common concern is that too much emphasis placed upon escaping Hell will lead to a disregard of God’s will for this life. Once again, I see the point, and I feel that it’s valid. We must emphasize that God’s salvation is seen in this life, and continues for eternity.

All that being said, I have become wary of something that I have noticed in the theology of many of my peers – the increasing silence on the reality of sin. It’s not that sin is denied, it’s just talked about less. Some thinkers, such as Tony Jones, have taken this so far as to deny the doctrine of original sin entirely. What is more common is to find churches and preachers who seem to keep language concerning sin to a minimum, or emphasize its quantifiable consequences
(environmental degradation, unjust economic practices, war – which are all extemely valid) while miminizing the aspect of our natures that is fundamentally corrupt and invariably causes us to fall away from God and necessitates the need for God’s radical action (Romans 3:23, 6:23). What is tragic about this is the fact I get the feeling that the language of total depravity, sin nature, etc. is dropped because it’s seen as too negative and dark to draw in the lost. In fact, I have come to believe that the doctrines of grace, salvation, redemption and God’s love can only be fully grasped when informed by a robust doctrine of human sinfulness.

Go back to the beginning of this post, when I mentioned the difference between a match in the light and a match in the darkness. The metaphor I would like to use is that God’s grace is that match. When it is lit in the context of our sin, we see its full potential. In a dark room, the light of the match is made very evident. By comparison, without a deep theology of our inherent sinfulness, God’s grace is more like a match in the light – it seems small, almost insignificant. John Calvin emphasized the importance of recognizing our inherent corruption, because he pointed out that doing so not only teaches us humility, it also magnifies the grace of God. In this regard I cannot agree more. On its own, God’s grace is a kind gesture that somehow we take for granted. When paired with an appreciation for the pervasiveness of sin in all of our lives, it becomes a miracle in the truest sense.

Of course, the doctrine of total depravity is a tricky one. As formulated by Augustine and Calvin, it states that our “sin” exists from conception and makes us guilty even before it manifests itself in specific “sins”. John Wesley never (to my knowledge) placed a specific starting point on our guilt, but he did write that total depravity was a non-negotiable Christian belief. The point of this post is not to delve into some of those issues, but merely to assert the importance of the truth expressed in Romans 5:19 and 1 Corithians 15:22, which holds that Adam’s sin is the template for all humanity. That fundamentally, we are drawn to rebel against God, and all of us are so guilty that we can only be saved through Christ’s intervention.

The doctrine of sin illuminates a great many other doctrines. However, on my read, this doctrine is most useful for properly understanding the necessity of the cross. On its own, the cross stands as a horrific tragedy which leaves us wondering why on earth God would require such a violent sacrifice. It is only when we see sin as a fundamental rebellion against God that is an affront to his character that we understand why such drastic measures were needed, as well as understanding how wonderful and gracious God’s love actually is. Also, there is a reason the Bible begins with the creation and subsequent fall of Adam and Eve. It illustrates our own fallenness, but also gives us hope by showing us the state in which we were created, and the relationship that we will one day enjoy with God.

Finally, without a robust doctrine of sin, our relationship with God loses much of its wonder. If our starting point is that we can have a relationship with God as we are, then it’s not hard to reach the conclusion that the way we are is just fine. Also, such thinking has a tendency to place ourselves on a pedestal above others who we deem to be “less worthy” than ourselves. When our starting point is our universal sinfulness, then all of a sudden it is impossible to condemn others, because we know that in God’s eyes were just as lost apart from Jesus (James 2:10). My pastor recently commented on Luke 15:7, where Jesus says, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”. My pastor pointed out that we could scour the whole earth and never find one person who didn’t need to repent, much less 99, hence the title of this post. The doctrine of sin reminds us that we are all the walking wounded, struck down by our deep-rooted sinfulness. That is why the doctrine of grace is so incredible, it tells us that God saw us as the helpless creatures that we are and loved us anyway.

On its own, the language of sin can be dark, depressing and saddening. This is as it should be, because our sins are dark, depressing and sad (Jeremiah 17:9). However, when the doctrine of sin is considered alongside the rest of Scripture which tells us of God’s actions which restore us to him, the gospel truly becomes “good news”, because we see that God’s love has overcome our sin.

In conclusion, I want to see our churches loudly proclaim the radical good news to the lost. We must proclaim “come as you are” to all who will listen. The truth is that we are all the same. We are all miracles, because we are all enslaved to crushing sin, apart from God’s love. It is only when we can stand back and look in awe at the grace that we have been given, that we will be inspired to call our neighbors to receive it as well.


P.S. I listened to “Hookers and Robbers” by Charlie Hall as I was writing this, and I think this song expresses what I’m thinking quite beautifully. Check it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

What's the Plan Stan?

In the realm of weight lifting it is a wise decision to keep track of what exercises, number of repetitions, and the amount of weight used each session. This helps the individual set goals, keep track of the progress that they are making, and be very intentional with the use of their time and energy. This sort of mentality can be very useful in many areas of our lives.
One goal of my life is to grow in the knowledge of God’s Word. Recently I was introduced to a “Bible reading system” that has been very beneficial to my life and so I decided I would share it through this blog. Rather than copy and pasting the whole system I will just point you in the right direction and give the reasons why I recommend it.
This system was developed by Professor Grant Horner of the Master’s College. To find out more information you can join his Facebook group by searching for his name. If you are not Facebook savvy then you can download a PDF file by following the link at the bottom of the post. Basically, there are 10 lists of books (the Gospels, the Pentateuch, etc.) in which you read one chapter from each every day. For him, this system made sense because it would help him see the unity of the Bible. His goal was to gain increasing familiarity with the Scriptures and enhance memorization. Note, this did not replace his in depth study of passages.
Now, to whom would this benefit the most? Well… everyone! Although, if you are the type of individual who likes lists, sectioning things off, or is just plain A.D.D. this would probably suit you the best.
Why do I recommend it? Well for starters, it makes you pause after every chapter you read as you switch books and remember where you left off in each story or letter. For me, the continual stopping and starting prevents any form of daydreaming or thinking about what the rest of the day holds. Most importantly, it is a way to keep track and make sure you are reading the whole Bible.
And now I will leave you with a question: do you have any Bible reading habits that you think would be beneficial for others?



Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Coffee and Tracts

Hello friends. How’s life? I trust that you are all doing well, staying off the police blotter, and generally out there saving the world from villains, supernatural baddies, and trans-fats. I, on the other hand, have been reading. No, this does not mean I’ve saved any of you from a nuclear meltdown (yet), but I did read one book that has really had me thinking over the last couple of weeks, and I wanted to riff on it in the sincere hopes that I could get some responses from you all. So, here goes.

The other day, I went with my family to the Eclipse Bookstore, in Bellingham. This place was great. There were literally so many used books that there were piles upon piles of them all over the ground, in addition to packed shelves. We ended up wandering for about 45 minutes, and in the end I purchased More Ready Than You Realize, by Brian McLaren. This book concerns evangelism, and it is set in the framework of e-mails between Brian and April, which slowly beautifully describe April’s progression from religious skeptic to believer. Brian uses this correspondence to illustrate what he views as the best mode of evangelism in our day, which he calls “friendship evangelism”. Overall, as I read it I was largely impressed, but it also got me thinking about the task of evangelism as a whole. As someone who studied missions, evangelism is a topic close to my heart, and I’m really hoping to hear your responses on this.

To begin, I commend McLaren for asserting that evangelism is still a vital part of the church’s mission. In McLaren’s mind, the traditional forms of evangelism have become obsolete in our post-modern milieu. Instead of traditional evangelism, which feels like a “sales pitch”, McLaren advocates evangelism made up of conversations over a period of time. McLaren’s goal is obvious, to turn Christian evangelism from a results and conversion-driven endeavor into an organic process driven by conversation rather than agenda. McLaren points out that many of our evangelistic models are derived from the revival heydays of Wesley and Edwards through Billy Graham and Billy Sunday. McLaren states that these methods were effective because they took place in a time when America still embraced its identity as a “Christian Nation”. As such, the average person was more likely to embrace the Gospel, because it appealed to his national identity. However, as our country becomes more and more likely to embrace the designation of “post-Christian”, the cultural religious identity that served the efforts of the evangelists of the past is no longer available. As our culture has changed around us, McLaren writes that Christians have failed to adapt. The statement that the church has been losing its influence over American life is hardly shocking (see this article:
http://www.newsweek.com/id/192583). In the face of this situation, McLaren states that our churches must embrace their post-modern surroundings in their efforts to evangelize. Specifically, he states that we must abandon any efforts that focus on simply “making converts”, and instead seek ways to engage our neighbors in authentic conversations, which he feels will lead to both better numerical results, and more devoted followers.

As I read this book, I came away impressed for two main reasons. The first aspect that impressed me was that, by writing this book using the format of shared e-mails, McLaren demonstrated that evangelism is an exercise that we are all capable of. In McLaren’s model, the preeminent tool in the evangelism toolbox is genuine friendship. He states that the shift in America’s religious culture has removed the underlying sentiment that being “American” entails embracing “Judeo-Christian Values”. Thus, the age when preachers could appeal to these values when speaking to an audience of strangers and get a response is past. In my mind, this is not necessarily a tragedy, because it removes the excuses that we could use to pass on the work of evangelism. When this work was carried out in churches by preachers, gifts such as public speaking, personal charisma and apologetics were key components. When the venue in which evangelism takes place moves from the church to a coffee shop, park or home, the Church is no longer reliant solely upon “preachers” to reach the lost. When friendships are already in place, discussions of heavier matters are likely to occur. In the world of friendship-evangelism, Christians must be ready to seize the opportunity to speak honestly and openly about their faith on these occasions.

Even more impressive to me was the concept of taking what is “mundane” and making it “sacred”. This is more than merely a “church phenomenon” (I recommend reading David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise to see what I mean about this being a widespread trend). What McLaren hints at is that we as Christians must see our day-to-day lives as being filled with opportunities to both live out and speak about our faith. These chances are often spontaneous and unscripted. McLaren states (and I agree) that this is how it should be. Evangelism for today is most effective when it is allowed to function within the daily routines of our lives. Thus, if we want to see our loved ones drawn into a relationship with Christ, me must resist the temptation to write off our daily existence as “secular”, “mundane” or “average”. Of course, we want to avoid being so agenda-driven that we turn off the friends we hope to see saved. Instead, we must be constantly praying that God would work in these opportunities and allow us to share our faith in large or small ways. Thus, the commonplace parts of our lives take on spiritual significance. I feel that this is something that the church must understand, so that we may seize as many of these opening as possible.

Of course, McLaren’s book is far from perfect. In fact, as I read I found that I agreed with most of what he said, but I was nervous about the things that he left out. For example, in our culture, have all traditional forms of evangelism (apologetics, evangelistic outreaches, etc.) become obsolete, or must we just change how we utilize them? What sorts of knowledge would be helpful in this endeavor? For me, the most glaring absence was there seemed to be a lack of urgency. Of course, we cannot rush the work of the Holy Spirit, but I still wished that I had seen a greater sense of desperation to reach the lost. I feel that evangelism is necessary for two reasons. The primary reason is that God loves the lost, and calls us to introduce them to his love. The second is because the Bible warns of the consequences for those who reject God’s overtures. I never want to devolve into a “hellfire and brimstone” kind of guy, but I do feel that this reality should energize us to pray all the harder for the lost, and seek opportunities to share, and I missed the sense of urgency that should come with the task of evangelism. Overall, despite these critiques, I felt that this book was a pleasant surprise, and very helpful. Most of all, McLaren reminds us that the front lines of evangelism are often our homes, shops, places of employment and restaurants, rather than in the pews. After reading this book, I was reminded that the best thing our churches can do in order to reach the lost is proclaim Biblical truth, find effective ways of loving our communities, and impressing upon their congregations the fact that evangelism is best accomplished by them, Monday through Saturday.

Anyway, now that I’ve ranted, I really covet your thoughts. How is evangelism best carried out? Which methods, if any, should we abandon or modify? What role does dogmatic theology play in evangelism? What are some ways to energize the church for evangelism? Comment early, comment often.

Many thanks,
P.S. I know that Brian McLaren is something of a divisive figure in the Evangelical world. I haven't read that much of his stuff, and most of the other stuff he's written I've been more or less unimpressed with. That being said, I did find this book interesting. I guess I would say that I think this book is worth reading (carefully), but I can't speak for much of his other material.