Tuesday, May 25, 2010

American Secular Gospel

American Secular Gospel
Dr. Kevin Shrum

In a recent article entitled, ‘The Gospel that Is Killing Us,’ (http://kevin-shrum.blogspot.com/2010/05/gospel-that-is-killing-us.html) I used what I thought was a throw-away phrase in the final paragraph – ‘American secular gospel.’ A dear friend of mine immediately called me and said that he thought there was something in that phrase that needed to be fleshed out. His comment to me forced me to think through once again what I had written. What did I mean when I wrote that it is the American secular gospel that is killing us? Let me break this phrase down.

American – There is no one who loves America as much as I do. This is no slam on other nations or cultures. It is simply a recognition that God has afforded me the privilege of living in what some have called the greatest nation ever to exist in the history of humanity. The freedoms we enjoy and the progress we have made in technology, medicine, education, science, and basic living conditions have been unprecedented. While America has never been a pure theocracy, the framework that has informed our cultural and social morals was shaped and formed by a decidedly Judeo-Christian worldview. If America had any message it was the gospel. So, closely identified has the Judeo-Christian worldview been associated with America that, in fact, some have equated Americanism with the gospel itself. The flag has dangerously wrapped itself around the cross. To preach the gospel was to preach Americanism and visa versa.

But America lost her way along the way and, along with it, the goodness and grace that may have been a result or affect of the gospel. America has disconnected itself from its spiritual moorings. Two devastating consequences have resulted from this disconnect. First, America has been set adrift on the sea of radical individualism where everyone has their own god and everyone is their own priest. Second, the gospel some preach from the pulpits of America’s churches is preached under the delusion that America is still on God’s side and God is still on America’s side. This means that the pulpits of America have lost their prophetic voice to preach the gospel to sinners, to proclaim truth to power, and to bring a message of judgment to a nation that has for the most part abandoned God. In other words, there is no discord between the gospel some preach and the American way of life.

Secular – So, if God is out, what or who is in? The answer is: secularism. This much used word simply refers to the fact that we are no longer ruled by eternal principles or vertical considerations. We are now completely horizontal in our perspective. There are no longer any eternal considerations. With the death of the gospel has come the flat-lining of an eternal, spiritual horizon. And if secularism is the new religion then science and technology are its theology, with scientists and technocrats posing as its theologians. In addition, the ultimate goal of this secular perspective is the heightened awareness of my individual autonomy as my own god and the continuing development of the many creature comforts we so enjoy.

Gospel – The consequence of this spiritual shift in America has been the product I call the American secular gospel. The American secular gospel preaches a message that is more about flag-waving than it is about loyalty to King Jesus; that is less about personal repentance and more about personal fulfillment; that is more about individual success than it is about the Savior; that is more about our creature-comforts than sacrifice; that is more about promoting a particular political party than speaking truth to power; that is more about seeing God’s will as making much of me rather than much of Him. The American secular gospel is a pathetic replacement for the real gospel where Jesus Christ is preeminent in all things.

The consequences of the American secular gospel on the church have been devastating. Carpeted, air-conditioned buildings greet neatly dressed consumers who gather to consume a gospel that makes much of them and not much of God. Nice-speaking preachers preach the gospel of fulfillment rather than the gospel of self-abandonment that confronts us in our sins with the radical demands of the gospel. We have forgotten the gospel that declares that true happiness comes hard by our death and self-abandonment as we made truly alive in Jesus Christ.

Is there hope for America? Yes. There is a clue that can be found in the historical record. In 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America from France to observe the secret of the success of this new experiment called democracy that had been born out of religious truth and liberty. This is what de Tocqueville wrote in his book, Democracy in America, “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers, and it was not there; in her fertile fields and boundless prairies, and it was not there; in her rich mines and her vast world commerce, and it was not there. Not until I went to the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Hope for America will be found in the churches of America IF the churches of America rediscover the gospel of Jesus Christ, a gospel that makes much of God and less of us; a gospel that calls us to repentance and commitment to Jesus Christ; a gospel that calls us to serve rather than be served; a gospel that unleashes the creative power of humanity in service to mankind; a gospel that calls for an eternal, long-term perspective; a gospel that declares that humanity is more than a compilation of lucky cells, but a call to true greatness where human abilities are viewed as God-given and are used in service to the glory of God; a gospel that calls for moral and spiritual purity that trumps reckless autonomy; a gospel that calls for responsible freedom and that rejects license. America, God is calling. Are you listening?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Where Was God in the Flood of Nashville?

Where Was God in the Flood of Nashville?
Dr. Kevin Shrum

There is a small phrase in the Bible that has been bothering me, especially since the tragic flood that nearly swept Nashville away. This small phrase is found in Luke 8:25 where Jesus’ cruise across the Sea of Galilee was interrupted by a windstorm that threatened to sink their entire mission enterprise. You know the story. The disciples’ set sail with Jesus across the Sea of Galilee, Jesus takes a nap, the storm foments the sea and threatens to sink their small boat, Jesus calms the storm, and the disciples are amazed. Then comes verse 25, “He said to them, ‘Where is your faith?’ And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, ‘Who then is this, that He commands even winds and water, and they obey Him?’” The small phrase – “He commands even winds and water, and they obeyed Him” – says much about the often comforting, sometimes disturbing, always present sovereignty of God. Let me explain.

When a tragedy takes place in our world most Christians do everything in their power to protect God’s good name. We will blame disasters on everything BUT God. We say, ‘God could never do that; God would never do that.’ The unintended consequences of explaining away any role for God in the devastating disasters of life is that God is reduced to being a bench player until after the tragedy. That is, God becomes an ‘after-the-fact’ kind of God who is able only to comfort the grieving but is never a God who may design tragedy for our good and His glory. This kind of language about God for most of us is shocking!

Further, this kind of erroneous theology makes God out to be a reactionary God only. God can comfort in the tragedy, but He can never cause the tragedy. Rather than God being a part of the event, the tragic event is designed and caused by some misnamed power like Mother Nature or by saying the Accident god caused it or by saying that it’s Satan’s fault. If we make God out to be only a reactionary God we have unwittingly made Him less of a God than what caused the event itself. In essence, we have committed the sin of idolatry in creating a god to explain the tragedy rather than attempting to understand the mystery of the God’s sovereignty. We may not knowingly admit this claim, but it is the consequence of saying that God only shows up after the fact and not prior to the fact. God becomes the helpless God of heaven who must wait for a tragedy to pass before He can intervene.

Let’s look at Luke 8:22-25 in a different way. Let’s suppose that Jesus – the One who created and controls all things; the One who has all things at His disposable (John 1:3) – desired to design a circumstance to grow the faith of His followers and to demonstrate His sovereign power (and there may be more purposes that I cannot see). It would then follow that He designed the time they would launch their boat, He designed the timing and place of the storm, He designed raising the anxiety level of His disciples by falling asleep prior to the storm, and He designed the calming of the storm and the questioning of their faith. This kind of perspective makes sense of that phrase “He commands even winds and water, and they obey Him.” I take this to mean that Jesus was not caught off guard by the storm. Rather, He commanded what He created. He made the wind and the water and they did His biding. Like the old saying goes, ‘Has it ever occurred to us that nothing has ever occurred to God?’ I do not know how God directs what He has created, but I do know that Scripture teaches that God is sovereign even when I can’t get my finite mind around His infinite purposes.

Most of us are not ready for this kind of sovereignty. Neither am I. It makes us uncomfortable to speak of God in this way. It comes close to making God culpable for evil. But we cannot speak out of both sides of our mouth when it comes to God’s power. We cannot both claim that God has the power to do all things and then not be able to do all things. I have no other conclusion than to say that God is sovereign over all things and in all things. This is not to say that God does evil. It is to say that all things – both good and bad – are under His control. It is to say that God either causes a thing or permits a thing. It is to say that whether God permits a thing or causes a thing He always designs a thing for purposes that are sometimes beyond our grasp. It is to say that there is no God but God.

Whether an event is intentionally caused by God as the first cause or permitted by God as the secondary cause, it is nevertheless the design of God in all things whether good or bad to bring us to Himself and to seek His own glory. The supreme biblical example is found in the Book of Job where it is God himself who teases Satan into considering and then testing the faith of Job (Job 1:8). Job loses everything, except his wife (and she was no help). Satan is the immediate cause of the evils that come Job’s way; God is the ultimate cause of Job’s distress.

The reason this issue is important is because it forces us to live with a different set of questions, the right questions. To say that God does not, will not, and cannot do or permit all things both good and bad does not help, leaving us with many unresolved questions about God’s abilities. In fact, for me, it leaves me with more questions than it answers. For example, if God was not behind the storm on the Sea of Galilee then who was? Where was God? Did some arbitrary god cause the storm? Was nature totally out of God’s sovereign control? Was Jesus caught off guard and had to perform a ‘make-up miracle’ in calming the storm. These kinds of questions make me question God’s power.

I would rather live with the hard questions like, ‘Why did God do this or that? What God-ordained purposes can I detect in an event? Even when I don’t understand God’s purposes, how humble am I in agreeing with Job when he said (Job 1:21), “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Am I willing to live with the mystery of God’s purposes and agree with Job (Job 40:4-5) in saying, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hands on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” I would rather live with the questions that come from God’s purposeful and often mysterious sovereignty than the questions that come from viewing God as a reactionary, helpless God who can only comfort in a tragedy but never design a tragedy for His glorious purposes.

To say that God designs and permits or designs and causes an event does not mean that I like or understand all that God does. I am not saying that God’s purposes are always pleasant or detectable. It is to say that when one reads Luke 8:25 and takes note that the very winds and water that could have killed the disciples were under Jesus’ command makes me humble myself under God’s mighty hand seeking His face and His heart even when I do not understand His hand.

So, where was God in the storm that hit Nashville, killing a number of people, and ravaging hundreds of homes? To say it poetically, God had one foot on one side of the storm, one foot on the other side of the storm, and with a thunderbolt in His hands, He road that storm right over my fair city. If God is not the God of the storm how can God be God over the storm? How can I say such a thing? Because best of all, Luke 8 tells us that Jesus was not an absent God – let us never forget that the One who created and commands the wind and the waves, the One who designed the storm was in the storm, in the boat with His disciples. That’s some kind of sovereign God!

The Theology Blog: The Gospel That is Killing Us

The Theology Blog: The Gospel That is Killing Us

The Gospel That is Killing Us

The Gospel That is Killing Us
Dr. Kevin Shrum

Imagine a visitor from another planet visiting the average American church. This extraterrestrial would more than likely see many empty pews but also hear a gospel that is killing us. This outside intruder would here a gospel that frames God’s purposes in the gospel as making our life healthy, wealthy, and prosperous. This ET would hear a gospel that diminishes and belittles God, painting God as a deity that is helplessly waiting on the sidelines of life for the disasters of life to pass, all the time wringing His hands in frustrated exasperation – God is a pastoral God who can only respond to difficulties and not a sovereign God who designs all things for our good and his glory. This visitor would hear a gospel devoid of sacrifice, repentance, and a striving to enter into the kingdom, a gospel that is passive and man-centered. The mantra of this gospel would be, ‘It’s OK to be all about God so long as God is all about you!’

My fear is that this silly scenario is not far from the truth. American Christianity has lost much of its robust nature because the gospel has been reduced to a gospel without repentance, salvation without endurance, forgiveness without being forgiving, love without accountability, and eternal life without gritty, determined, committed grace. A gospel without true repentance from sin, embraced by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for God’s glory alone is not the gospel. A gospel that does not make much of God and little of us is not the gospel.

The diminished gospel we have affirmed is dangerous. In fact, this gospel is killing us. The American gospel of Christianity is ruining and spoiling us. To suffer for the gospel is now optional, even unnecessary – maybe even sinful. The gospel that some preach has only health and wealth as its goal for the Christian. To be otherwise is to be out of the will of God. The gospel that is killing us has convinced us that church is all about having our ‘felt needs’ met; about guilt avoidance; about being successful in this life.

The problem with this truncated gospel is that health and wealth is exactly what the unconverted desire, as well. What difference is there between the Christian and the non-Christian if their goal is the same? What difference is there between the ‘blessed’ if one ‘got theirs’ from the world and the other from God? The gospel of secularism and the erroneous, self-absorbed gospel of Jesus I’m speaking of produce the same product, one with the label of secular, the other with the label of Savior. Surely, we are not saying that by putting the stamp of the gospel on a lifestyle that is no different than the lifestyle of the unbelieving somehow proves that we have been blessed by God.

Let me suggest another gospel. This gospel kills, as well. But it does so by nailing our sins and desires on a cross, a cross that is embraced by repentance and belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The true gospel of Jesus Christ is the death of the old self with its desire for the very things the world desires. Jesus spoke of this cross in Matthew 10:38-39: “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” The gospel of Jesus Christ declares our judgment, pronounces our sentence, and calls for our death to sin and self so that we might be awakened to a new life with new desires, motives, and purposes. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls for us to make much of God rather than self. So, while suffering is no proof of conversion neither is driving a BMW, living in a five thousand square foot home, and sending your kids to private school.

Let’s be clear. If God so chooses to bless a believer with financial means or good health then let him use those resources to the glory of God. Hard work, ingenuity, and good stewardship are part of God’s calling and do have rewards, even what we may call godly rewards. However, to preach a gospel with this as the goal of the gospel is not the gospel. The gospel is the means by which we come to God, not the means by which we ingratiate ourselves to the world.

Maybe what American Christianity needs is a season of suffering and persecution. Why? Is it not true that where Christianity is persecuted it grows? It is not also true that suffering and persecution have a way of exposing true believers from false? Further, is it not true that suffering has a way of stripping us of our self-righteous veneer and exposing our true motives? And doesn’t persecution force us to truly depend on God? Again, Christians are not to intentionally look for suffering and difficulty. But neither are we to avoid our own death to sin and the challenges that may come from living a Christ-centered, cross-bearing, God-glorifying life.

Do you recall Paul’s (Saul’s) conversion in Acts 9? God told Ananias, the old sage of Damascus, to speak over Paul these words (Acts 9:15-16), “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” Later, in Acts 14:22, Luke notes that Paul preached to the believers in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch that “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Paul’s life of suffering became a demonstration of his absolute confidence in his Savior and not in himself.

To suffer for the gospel is to crucify self (Rom. 6:6) so that we might live unto God. The gospel that makes much of us kills godliness and the church; the gospel that makes much of God in Christ kills us so that we might live with great abundance. The secular, American gospel leads to the death of God’s work in us while the gospel of Jesus Christ leads to a death to sin and self so that we may truly know what it is to live! Maybe we need to once again hear Paul’s testimony to the Galatian church (2:20), “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”