Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Are Christians Trouble Makers?

Are Christian’s Trouble-Makers
Kevin Shrum

In a recent article entitled, “The French Connection: The Many Parallels Between France’s Revolution and Today’s Anti-Christian Secularism” (Touchstone, Sept./Oct, 2011), James Hitchcock essentially argues that what started in the French revolution is now being continued by those who are rampant secularists and strident atheists. The goal is to dismantle the effects of the Judeo-Christian worldview on culture, in particular Western culture, stripping it of any vestiges of what secularists believe is a repressive and non-progressive system of belief.

Hitchcock rightly states, “The Enlightenment attempt to discredit Christianity in three ways – 1) as the incubator of hatred and violence, 2) as based on a false understanding of its own origins, and 3) as merely one manifestation of the natural human religious instinct – is now being reprised.”

Hitchcock is correct. In both subtle and blatant ways, Christianity is slowly being isolated and marginalized in the public square. Where it once was welcomed, the Christianity is now an increasingly unwelcome voice, a world-view now viewed as strange and obstructive. Whereas before the Christian worldview was the framework for the consideration of what was right and wrong, it has itself become the focus of suspicion and ridicule.

Are Christian’s the trouble-makers we’re made out to be? Do we foster violence, engender delusional beliefs, and manifest an arrogance of belief that is wrongly embraced? Do we hold to strange and unfamiliar truths that no longer resonate with modern culture? Is the church now the unwelcome guest at the community table?

While it is true that Christianity has had its share of abuses and abusers, maybe what we’re discovering is that the reaction a modern, secular culture is exhibiting toward Christianity is actually rather normal. Having come out of a period where Christianity was the ‘favored religion’ of Western culture, could it be that we are actually getting back to the normal reaction any secular culture has to a series of beliefs that focuses on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the call for a humble repentant self, the authority of a Spirit-wrought book, and where the cross is not just a beautiful mantle piece, but a true symbol of the sacrificed life?

I want to suggest that, barring a revival of monumental proportions in Western culture, Christianity will continue to be minimized as a legitimate intellectual enterprise as noted by a plethora of strident atheists and marginalized as a series of silly beliefs held by wackos and people of sub-intelligence as suggested by many in the modern, main-stream media.

While we should be consistent in our beliefs, measured in our responses, and undaunted in our engagement of secular culture, we should also count ourselves in good company with a few other Christian trouble-makers in history. For example, Jesus troubled Herod’s kingdom at his birth (Mt. 2:3); Paul troubled Athens (Acts 17) and Ephesus (Acts 19) by simply preaching the gospel; and the whole church has been troubling the world to one degree or another for centuries.

Instead of being shocked at this recent rise of anti-Christian sentiment and instead of playing the role of the pouting adolescent who didn’t get invited to the class party, let us sharpen our minds with the great truths of the Christian intellectual traditions that have weathered more serious storms than are currently raging in our times. This is no time for cowardice, but for firm, yet loving spiritual and intellectual engagement. It may that God is refining his church, clarifying her beliefs, purifying her motives, and testing her mettle for some future event in God’s glorious purposes.

Monday, August 22, 2011

On Mission for or a Mission of Jesus?

On Mission for or a Mission of Jesus?
Dr. Kevin Shrum

Question: Are you on mission for Jesus? Or, are you a mission of Jesus? I would imagine all of us are a little of both. To be on mission for Jesus is to do what Jesus would do, say what He would say, and go where He would go – after the lost and needy hard and fast. To be a mission of Jesus means that we’re on the receiving end of things; it means that we’re needy for His ministry – that we are the mission project.

While even the saved person will always need to be ministered to by God, it is all too often the case that we live on the receiving end of ministry and never mature to be on the giving end of ministry. Too many Christians are willing to receive ministry, but all too few are willing to give themselves away in ministry. It’s called the 80/20 rule: 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people.

How does the believer move from the receiving end of missions and ministry to the giving end of missions and ministry? It’s called growing in Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:13-17). It’s called maturity. The more mature a believer becomes the more they are willing to give themselves away for the cause of Christ; the less mature a believer is the longer they will remain as receivers and takers instead of givers and servers.
How can you move from the receiving end to the giving end of missions? How can you move to be on mission for Jesus and not just a mission of Jesus? The answer is what it has always been: 1) Bible study, 2) prayer, 3) service, 4) and fellowship with other believers. In addition, maturing in the faith means taking risks, along with sacrifice and dedication.

This is why missional and ministry involvement in and through your local church is essential. There are no ‘lone ranger’ Christians who go it alone. Maturing believers lock arms with other believers in giving themselves away for the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The result of all of these tools and opportunities ought to be a maturing body of believers willing to give themselves away in glad evangelism and missions.

I prayer that you’ll join the growing number of givers and servers, moving from the category of simply taking and receiving to giving and serving. Every believer will always be on the receiving end of God’s empowering grace and power – we need God’s power and strength. But the best way to receive is to give. It is in the giving away of yourself that you find yourself and the life God desires for us to experience (Mark 8:34-38).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Exploding the 'Myth of Culture'

Exploding the ‘Myth of Culture’
Dr. Kevin Shrum

The ‘myth of culture’ needs to be exploded if the gospel is to penetrate the culture. Let me explain. I recently returned from a twelve day stay in Kiev, Ukraine. Having returned home, I am more convinced than ever before that the ‘myth of culture’ is a false barrier we have created that is inhibiting the advancement of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the expansion of the kingdom of God in some areas of the world, particularly America.

While in Ukraine, God either taught me or reminded me of some very important essentials while teaching at Kiev Theological Seminary. One particular thing – maybe the most important thing – God reminded me of is what I call the ‘myth of culture.’ That is, we too often think that people in differing cultures are really different not only in their cultural practices but also in the nature of their souls. And if radically different, then when it comes to the gospel we need different gospels for different cultures. Unintentionally, concern for culture relativity has usurped a commitment to the one, true gospel. It’s as if we have made the gospel to suffer from a type of ‘multiple personality disorder.’ One gospel for this culture, one for the next culture – you get the idea. But is this true? Do we need a different gospel based upon differing cultures? Or, is the same gospel that saves in the Ukraine the same gospel that saves in Nashville, in Seattle, in Brazil, and so on…? Have we gone too far in the process of contextualization that we have failed to trust the gospel itself to save the sinner no matter his/her cultural background?

The reason the same gospel saves all who will repent of their sin and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ is because all people in all cultures are essentially the same. I have preached from coast to coast in America as well as Brazil, Italy, Puerto Rico, and now the Ukraine. Here’s what I have discovered. Scratch beneath the surface of what we call ‘culture’ and you will find that we are all the same. Yes, people in Seattle do things differently than do the people in the Ukraine, just as people in Nashville do things differently than the people who live in Puerto Rico. Yet, deep in the soul of every person is an ‘essential sameness’ that the gospel speaks to with power and truth.

No matter where one lives, no matter the background of a person’s culture or heritage, this ‘essential sameness’ cab be distilled into five issues. That is, all of life can be filtered through these five issues. These five issues have helped me minister to people in different cultures, from different backgrounds with differing cultural traditions. Cultures do differ. People do things different in different ways from family to family, from region to region, from people group to people group, from country to country. I am not opposed to recognizing and appreciating our cultural practices. Such practices make life interesting. What my concern is is that we have so emphasized understanding culture that the gospel has become subservient to the culture. Relevance has become THE key issue rather than gospel clarity. Being relevant is relevant, but not if the gospel is minimized. We have many cultural technicians in the church without gospel competence.

Let me say it again, scratch the surface of what we call ‘culture’ and you will find beneath the surface that all people everywhere desire the same things. Why? Because all people are made in the ‘image of God.’ This image, though corrupted by sin, makes us common ancestors of our great Creator God and it makes us desire the same things. The reason the gospel of Jesus Christ is so powerful is because it meets all five needs. All five issues can be put in the form of a question. What are these issues?

1. Is there a God? If so, what is God like and what does this mean for life? If there is no God, then what does this mean for life? This is the spiritual question, the belief question! All people everywhere have some type of spiritual or non-spiritual belief based upon their answer to this question. This spiritual belief may vary from atheism, to agnosticism, to animism, to various modes of meditation and contemplation. This is a universal essential. We are incurably religious.
→ The gospel answers this question by reminding us that there is a God. That this God is holy and loving, merciful and righteous, a God who has revealed Himself 1) in His creation, 2) in His Word, and 3) in His Son as the One, True God in three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit – and who has spoken to us through His Word as God works through His church to evangelize the lost and to bring the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, gladly waiting for His second coming. This was Paul’s tactic in Athens as he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, Acts 17:22-34. He simply recognized the universal religiosity of the people within earshot and then preached the gospel.

2. Who am I? Am I a cosmic accident? Am I the by-product of evolutionary processes? Or, am I a unique creation of God? This is what I call the question of self-identity. All people everywhere desire to know who they are. All people desire to know if they have meaning and purpose. In fact, we spend a great deal of our lives attempting to understand who we are, where we came, and what our destiny is. If we are incurably religious, we are also individually analytical.
→ The gospel answers this question by reminding us that we are created in the image of God. Though this image has been corrupted by sin, in Jesus Christ we are made new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), given new birth (John 3:3) with a new self (Eph. 4:17-32). In brief, 1) we are special by creation as made in the image of God, 2) we are sinners by reprobation as rebellious against our Creator, 3) we are saints being justified by faith in Jesus Christ, and 4) we are sanctified by the Spirit as new creations in Jesus Christ. Our identity is ‘in Christ’ as we’re remade and renewed as a new creation.

3. Who are you to me? This is the question of relationship! This question covers the relationships between individuals, in families, between nations, etc. In fact, economics is a form of relationship based on currency. Politics is about relationships. What happens in the church is all about relationships. How we relate to each other is an all-consuming feature of life. While we are incurably religious and individually analytical, we are also relationally connected.
→ The gospel answers this question by reminding us that as we were made relational creatures who relate to God through grace and love God, a grace and love that enables us to love our neighbors, both believer and unbeliever alike (Matthew 22:34-40).

4. What should I do with my life? Should I be a preacher, a missionary, a farmer, a politician, a businessman, a criminal, an artist, a writer, etc.? This is the question of vocation. That is, what should I do with my life? Along with this question comes the question – Does my work have meaning and purpose? Does what I do make any difference at all? Or, is my work futile and empty? It doesn’t matter if you live on the African plain, reside in the crowded city of New York, or live in a remote village on the frozen tundra of the Gulag, we desire to know what to do with our very fragile and brief lives. Incurably religious, individually analytical, and relationally connected, we are also vocationally quizzical.
→ The gospel reminds us that our vocation – no matter if it’s sacred or legitimately secular – can bring glory to God. In fact, 1 Corinthians 10:3 reminds us that we are to do all things for the glory of God. This makes the work of the farmer and the missionary important to God because both can bring glory to God (Colossians 3:12-17).

5. Finally, what happens when I die? This is the question of eternity! When I die do I cease to exist? Is there such a thing as reincarnation? Or, is there a heaven and hell? We are, as it were, eternally challenged.
→ The gospel reminds us that there is a heaven and hell, there is an eternity (Hebrews 9:27). Because we are made in the image of God there is a longing for another world. God has set eternity in the heart of mankind whether or not humanity acknowledges this truth. The gospel answers this question by reminding us that there is an eternity – heaven or hell – whose destination is decided by how one responds to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the here and now.

So, let the guy in south Alabama enjoy his sweet tea and the lady in London her hot tea; let the person in the Ukraine enjoy her borsch and the person of the upper plains of America his chicken-noodle soup; let the tribesman of the middle plains of Africa enjoy his exotic cuisine and the Texan her grilled steak. Let Celtic music sooth the soul and Asian artistry enamor the mind. Yet, let the one, true gospel be preached to all people whom God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). And let every sinner hear the good news, responding with repentance and faith so that when all is said and done “a great multitude that no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb” will say with one voice “salvation belongs to our God!” (Rev. 7:9-10) It will be on that day that the ‘myth of culture’ will finally be exploded by the triumph of the one, true gospel – Jesus Christ!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Is The Church Un-Prepared for Opportunity?

Is the Church Un-Prepared for Opportunity?
Dr. Kevin Shrum

We live in interesting times, do we not? Morally and spiritually, as well as economically and politically, it seems that everything has been turned on its head. And in the middle of these tumultuous times, the church seems to have been caught, as we would say where I grew up, ‘standing flatfooted.’ In other words, it appears that the church has been surprised by the sinfulness of sin, the increasing secularization of society, and the continual de-Christianizing of the Christian West in particular.

Such changes have morphed into heated discussions on the redefinition of marriage, the viability of alternative lifestyles and orientations, and the legitimacy of the church itself…and the list could go on. People outside the church respond, ‘What’s the big deal? Religion is out-of-date, we’re more scientific in orientation and less focused on fables and myths.’ People inside the church, when they crawl out from under the rock where they often live, are absolutely shocked at the exponential explosion of anti-Christian, non-Christian, and secular developments.

But should we be surprised at these events? And should we not view the times in which we live as a God-ordained judgment on sin as well as a God-wrought opportunity for the power of the gospel? I, for one, think that the gospel shines best when it seems darkest. No place was more secular than the Athens of Acts 17. Yet, the Apostle Paul preached the gospel with blazing boldness. And what was the response? Some believed, some made fun of Paul and the gospel, and others said they would give further consideration to the gospel (Acts 17:32-34). Should we expect any less?

More importantly, Paul didn’t analyze culture through geo-political lens or through an economic window. He wasn’t discouraged by the sinfulness of sin and/or the secularization of culture. Paul viewed all things through the gospel of Jesus Christ. The results were amazing. Paul had more confidence in the gospel than he had in any potential discouragement he experienced from the sinfulness of sin and/or the secularization of culture. Further, the gospel burned a path across the Middle East and Western Europe, a flame that leaped across the Atlantic and for more than 200 years burned a path across a new nation called America. In essence, the spiritual fire produced by the gospel boldly preached was fueled by and burned up the dry, parched ground of sinful secularism.

What’s the point? We live in days of great peril as well as tremendous opportunity, depending on one’s perspective. The difference between the two is how one perceives either the efficacy or the impotency of the gospel. Those first century believers lived in perilous times, yet without the amenities we know from modernity they conquered the world because they radically believed the power of gospel of Jesus Christ to transform lives that in turn transformed cultures.

What must we do? Is such a revolution possible again? What are we to do? 1) Let us reaffirm our belief in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 2) Let us take our confidence from the gospel and not from political movements, economic trends or slick marketing campaigns. 3) Let us ‘come out’ of our religious closets – church fortresses – and make ourselves known as loving, truthful Christians. 4) Let us engage culture with the gospel not in spite of the gospel. 5) Let us not hook our religious wagons to political machines thinking that the kingdom of God comes through worldly power instead of by Spirit-empowered means.

6) Let us live with the kind of gospel confidence that enables us to be unembarrassed of living a transformed, Christ-centered life. 7) Let us prepare to joyfully live behind ‘enemy lines,’ not expecting favorable decisions from pop, political and/or judicial culture. 8) Let us live with gospel contentment and peace, though in the minority. 9) Let us saturate our minds and hearts with God’s inerrant Word as the lead weapon in our spiritual struggles. 10) Finally, let us gather with other gospel believing Christians to preach and serve the world as salt and light. With such gospel embracing confidence and commitment perilous times morph into seasons of opportunity.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Recovering the God-Centeredness of God

Recovering the God-Centeredness of God
Kevin Shrum

Most believers are more me-centered than we care to admit, even when it comes to the necessity of God’s God-centeredness. We are sympathetic with the notion that God should get ‘all the glory’ so long as God is all about us and our glory in His actions and attitudes. Shouldn’t God use His great glory and power on our behalf and to our benefit? Aren’t we the ‘apple of His eye?’ Aren’t we special, unique, and cherished in His sight? I suppose there is a degree of truth to each of these statements. Yet, how humbling it is to come to terms with the fact that God is first and foremost God-centered before He is anything else and that His main goal is to glorify and enjoy Himself forever, a glory and enjoyment we are allowed to be caught up in as a benefit of His magnificent grace and mercy.

As a result of downplaying the God-centeredness of God, we have turned salvation into a ‘me-centered’ enterprise. God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and life-giving power are there to show-case how valuable we are to God. What arrogance, what hubris we must own up to when the clay says to the master potter, ‘It’s all about me!’ Let us remember that God does not love us because we are valuable; we are valuable only to the degree that God made us and loves us as image bearers and reflections of our creative and great God.

Our me-centered theology has morphed the church into a self-serving enterprise, as well. Think about it. The church these days, in large part, has become a place where mini-gods rub elbows with each other as we make much of ourselves, our skills, our blessings, and our lives. Instead of making sure God remains at the center of the marriage event between the bridegroom (Jesus) and the bride (the Church), we have made the church out to be a place of performance and self-actualization. The church has become the prostitute that serves our self-interests, pimped by a clergy who help perpetuate the me-centeredness of her members. This is why the main questions in some churches are: Are my needs being met? Am I being fed? Where are the people like me? Why do people not make much of me and my talents? Churches would be massively transformed if we constantly pointed people away from self and to the Savior. Instead of preaching the doctrine of self-fulfillment and self-actualization, let us preach the doctrines of self-abandonment and self-denial, for it is in the abandoning of ourselves to God that He saves us.

Our me-centered theology has transformed missions into a series of neat little excursions into ‘another context’ so that we won’t feel so guilty about our lavish lives. Rather than living and breathing mission wherever we are all the time – that our life is not our own – we plan episodic mission events to those who have it bad because we have it so good. The remaining part of our life is ours to determine what we choose do with it. Mission has become digging wells for clean water because our water is so clean, yet not offering the life-giving water of the gospel; mission has become feeding the poor because we are so filled and fat instead of offering people food that fills the soul. Digging wells, feeding the poor and rescuing people from wickedness are all noble causes, so long as they pave the way for the water of life, the bread of eternity, and the rescuer from sin – Jesus. Mission is mission only to the degree that one soul tells another soul about the God-centeredness of God in Jesus Christ whose God-centeredness becomes the sole source of true liberation. To simply do good to and for others, if separated from this God-centered gospel, will only reinforce the me-centered condition of humanity. Let us feed, cloth, and rescue the helpless and the hopeless, yet do it with the gospel in mind, lest while preparing people to live in this life we do not prepare them for the next.

Our me-centeredness has equally turned marriage into a self-centered contractual relationship. Take two people and put them together with the goal of self-actualization and there will be trouble. Yet, put two people together who push each other toward the one true, eternal God in Jesus Christ and there will be passion, romance, understanding, grit, and determination. In fact, take a woman who is lifted up to God as a precious offering by her husband, a husband who longs to see his wife blossom into a beautiful vessel in which the treasure of God can be displayed, and I will show you a God-centered marriage that can weather any storm with grace and grit; take a man whose wife lifts him up to God as the humble leader of his home and I will show you a man who will die for her, an example of God’s sacrificial God-centeredness. In both cases, show me a God-centered marriage and I will show you a man and a woman, a marriage, where God directs the household to domestic peace and purpose.

The problem with the God-centeredness of God is that it conflicts with the me-centeredness of me, a dilemma that can be traced back to the garden in which THE temptation was for us to become like God (Gen. 3:5). Since the Fall, sin has shifted the center of human existence from God to self. I am convinced that the reason many in the church have no, true joy is because we attempt to wire the soul with the circuitry of a me-centered world and the God-centeredness of God. It just won’t work; we’ll blow a circuit. And no matter how much we possess or how much we reach for self-actualization there will be no joy or peace.

The good news is that in Jesus Christ a new creation begins for the me-centered sinner that is caused by God and where God once again becomes the center of all things. Instead of God orbiting our lives, our lives orbit His in Jesus Christ. But, oh, how painful this transformation is as we are usurped as the god of the universe, replaced by a God-centered God who is once again acknowledged in all things as supreme and whose God-centeredness graciously spills over into all things that benefit His children.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Universalism: For Whom the Bell Tolls? – It Tolls for Thee

Universalism: For Whom the Bell Tolls? – It Tolls for Thee
Dr. Kevin Shrum

The anticipation of the release of Rob Bell’s new book continues to grow. If the title of the book – Love Wins : Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived - is any indication of Bell’s future theological trajectory we will see the precursor of what will become full-blown universalism. Bell’s defenders will accuse his opponents of overstating the dangers of the questions Bell is asking concerning God’s love, the reality of the nature of our eternal destinies, and the seeming incongruity between a belief in a loving God and the radical punishment (eternal hell) for those who reject God’s love; Bell’s detractors will act as if Bell is the first person to wander off the theological reservation.

If Bell is headed toward a full-blown universalism that is wrapped in Christian garb, I have but one statement and one major question for Bell.

My statement is rather personal, so let me address it directly to Rob Bell: “Rob, when I heard about your book, watched some of your video clips, and read some of the numerous responses to your proposals I had this vision of you standing on a white sand beach, sun-tan oil and towel in hand, sunning yourself in the rays of God’s warm sun, oblivious to the fact that a tsunamic tidal-wave was rising up out of the ocean ready to sweep away everything and everyone in its path, including you. Don’t you realize that the beach of universalism on which you’re stepping has been tried before and that, just as before, a tidal-wave of biblical truth and historical/theological consensus will sweep you away? You will become a footnote in the history of the church as just another well-intentioned ‘theologian’ who tried to spit into God’s powerful whirlwind of truth. Rob, I’ve never met you, but please, get off the beach before your stellar career is swept away.”

My questions are rather personal, as well: “Rob, if Love Wins in the way you are reported to say that it does, why be a Christian at all? I don’t get it. If, in the end, nothing really matters (how I live or who I serve) because God will save the worst of us even if we refused to follow Jesus in this life, why follow Jesus in this life at all? Why live holy or make any attempt to really love my neighbor? This is one thing I’ve never understood about universalism. If there’s nothing at stake, if everyone wins, if God’s holiness is actually meaningless and can be co-opted by my hubris, if love alone defines God apart from His holiness, righteousness, wrath, and judgment, then why make any attempt to follow Jesus in this life in the first place? By the way, Rob, if universalism is true don’t ever speak of church discipline to your church members or your kids – in the end, it doesn’t matter. Don’t ever speak of truth – it doesn’t matter. Please don’t tell me that following the ‘Jesus way’ will make my life smoother, easier, or better in this life. Who cares? If universalism is true, then truth is determined by the autonomous self that will get the good side of both time and eternity no matter what.”

But, Rob, I have more questions. If universalism is true, I’m going for the best of what both worlds have to offer – eat, drink, and be merry in this life for tomorrow I will die, and when I do die I get heaven no matter what happened this side of eternity. And what’s my reward? I get away with it! Fantastic! Again, please don’t tell me that I should still follow Jesus in this life because it will make my life better. Are you kidding! I’m a ‘stinkin’ sinner’ who is already uninterested in and struggling with changing my ways, so if I don’t have to and I can still get heaven and if thumbing my self-important finger in God’s face has no eternal consequences, this is awesome and I for one am all about it. If universalism is true I may or may not be faithful to my wife, depending on if it benefits me; I may or may not love my kinds, etc. You get the picture. Oh, by the way, it’s nice that Jesus lived, said some amazing words, ‘died for sinners’, rose from the dead, etc. – if you still believe all that stuff. But if universalism is true then I’m not going to miss whatever ‘it’ is in this life because I’ll get ‘it’ in the long run. I must say, your orthodoxy has truly become generous.”

“I join John Piper in bidding you farewell, Rob Bell. Let me be prophetic. The crowds will still attend your church and your conferences, your book will sell (I bought one myself), and you will become even more rich and famous than you are now. But you have become what Jesus said of the Pharisees of old (Mt. 23:13-15): ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.’ Be well and be safe on your journeys across the universalistic high seas. So long, Rob Bell, so long. Only remember but one question: For whom does the bell toll? Rob, it tolls for thee.”

Friday, February 4, 2011

Reclaiming the Exclusivity of Jesus Christ

Reclaiming Jesus as the ‘Only Way’
Dr. Kevin Shrum

The Christian claim that Jesus is the exclusive and unique way to know God has been, is, and will continue to be an on-going discussion both within the church and outside the church. Within the church the issue of exclusivity makes some Christians cringe because they do not want to appear to be narrow-minded, unloving, disengaged, arrogant, parochial, and isolated from culture. Outside the church the claim of the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the only way to know God comes off as prideful, uninformed, and sophomoric. How can the Christian message claim to be ‘the’ exclusive way to know and experience God in a personal, saving way? What hubris! What spiritual bigotry! And yet, this is the historic claim of Christians.

Sadly, as a pastor, I see many Christians unable to explain in substantive terms the reasons for this claim. The truth of ‘Jesus is the Only Way’ has simply been passed down from one generation to the next, often times without thought or reflection. The results of this kind of unthinking Christianity are devastating. When pressed about his/her beliefs in such assertions, the unthinking Christian will either a.) abdicate their position by claiming that Jesus is ‘a way’ but not ‘the way;’ or b.) they will defensively retort to their inquisitor with equally unthinking terms such as ‘just cause’ or ‘the Bible says so.’ Yes, the Bible says so, but where does it say it and why does it say it?

So, let me be elementary in restating just a few reasons why Christians can confidently claim that Jesus is the exclusive way to know and experience God in a saving way.

First, Jesus claimed exclusivity. The critic will often respond to the claim of exclusivity with comments like, ‘Well, that’s just your opinion.’ They will act as if it’s a claim Christians thought up just to aggravate people. The problem with this response is that it is ignorantly void of understanding the source of the exclusive claims of Christianity. In other words, the Christian does not have to bear the weight of being the source of this claim. Why? Because it was Jesus Himself who made such exclusive claims. Numerous times either directly (John 14:6) or indirectly (John 5:16-18) Jesus claimed that He alone was the exclusive way to know God (see also Acts 4:12; Gal. 1:6-10; John 8:48-59; John 10:30-33; Phil 2:5-11). The critic may argue with you about this claim, but she will not be able to do so based upon hearsay or personal opinion. They will have to take up their case not with you but with Jesus. Yes, we speak this truth. But let Jesus bear the weight of this claim – He can handle it.

Second, Jesus Claimed to be God. As if claiming to be the exclusive way to God is not enough, Jesus goes one step further by claiming to be God. The religious leaders of His day picked up on this even when His own disciples remained clueless. In fact, John 5:18 states that they understood Jesus words and deeds as “…making himself equal with God.” Such a claim dovetails with other core Christian doctrines such as the trinity. Let it be stated clearly then: Jesus did not become God at His birth, He was not adopted as God at His baptism, nor did He gain that title/position through His crucifixion and resurrection. Jesus’ claim is larger. He claimed to have always been God – pre-incarnate God come in the flesh who now reigns eternally as a part of the Trinity - Father, Son , and Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14).

Third, Jesus Forgave Sins. But Jesus not only made outrageous claims, He did outrageous things that only God can do – He forgave sins. Case in point: In Mark 2:1-12 a lame man was brought to Jesus by four of his friends. After having dismantled the roof of the house, they lower their ill friend before Jesus. They wanted a healing service, but Jesus gave them more than they bargained for. He not only healed the man physically, He forgave his sins. To demonstrate He had the power to heal, He both healed (the temporal need) and forgave (the eternal need) the paralytic. This act stunned the religious-minded who were crammed into this small house with dozens of other seekers. They knew that such an action was none other than an implicit, yet bold claim to be God. In fact, Mark 2:7 records what was going through the minds of the religious leaders, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus forgives sins. Only God can do this.

Finally, Jesus Accepted Worship. This point is not discussed enough, yet is as powerful as any supporting the exclusive claims of Jesus. Stated clearly – Jesus never refused the worship of people. This takes the cake! To ‘say’ you are the only way to God could be understood as mere words that can be dismissed as arrogance. And, the claim to be God could put Jesus in the class of a lunatic as C.S. Lewis noted. Further, to forgive sins could be understood as simply the therapeutic act of a religious sage for the wounded soul. But Jesus’ acceptance of worship as God is over the top. This means that Jesus not only talked like God, He acted like God because God alone is jealous for worship and worthy of worship.

I wonder what the response of the Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus at Jacob’s well would be if we asked her if the exclusive claims of Jesus are true and if worship of Jesus is a misdirected and/or ill-advised act? I think her response would be – you may not believe Jesus is God, but I have met Him, I have experienced His forgiveness, I have heard the truth because He is the truth, and I have found the true place of worship at His feet (John 4:1-45). Let us then boldly and humbly claim what Jesus claimed – He’s the truth, the way, and the life!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Christians are Atheists

Christians are Atheists
Kevin Shrum, Isaac Shrum, Caleb Shrum

Let’s begin with an outlandish claim: Christians are atheists. We want to add to the new generation of atheists that have arrived on the scene, i.e. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, et al, a new and unique category of atheistic persons: Christians. How can such a claim be substantiated? Aren’t Christians supposed to be theists? That depends on your definition of theism and atheism. Christians are theists if you mean by that term a belief in a creator, sovereign God who is personally involved in creation. However, if you’re counting on Christians resting their faith on ‘all things that are not god’ then Christians can rightly be labeled atheists. In other words, there are some things Christians do not believe in. The claim that Christians are atheists is not new, however.

The argument for Christianity on the basis of a specific definition of atheism finds it roots in the second century. In fact, it was used by one of the first Christian apologists of the church, Justin Martyr (A.D 100 – A.D. 165). Let me explain. One of the charges against the early church was that Christians were atheists because ‘they did not believe in the gods of the time.’ Christians rejected belief in the pantheon of gods of the ancient world in favor of belief in the One, True God. When Justin Martyr was making his defense of Christianity before the Roman Emperor, Titus Aelius Adrianus Antonius Pius Augustus Caesar (b. AD 86 – d. 161) who ruled Rome from AD 138 – 161, he used a novel form of the atheistic argument that captured the essence of Christianity in succinct terms.

Here’s what Justin said in ‘The First Apology of Justin’ before Caesar: “For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, they who did such things as these are gods, but assert that they are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue. Hence, are we (Christians) called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God, the Father of righteousness and temperance and the other virtues, who is free from impurity.”

In essence, what Justin Martyr did was morph the accusation that Christians are atheists by embracing the accusation and reinterpreting its meaning. Christians are full-blown theists if that means a belief in the God and Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. But if theism is defined as a general belief in the things that the world considers holy then Christians are atheistic when it comes to a belief in the ‘gods of this world.’ What are these gods that Christians do not believe in as ultimate reality?

One god that Christians do not believe in is the god of ‘self’, or ‘the old self’. According to 2 Corinthians, once the unbeliever is saved, he or she is a ‘new creation’ in Christ, ‘the old has gone, and the new has come’. Though saved, the Christian remains in a constant struggle with the god of self. Daily, the believer is enticed to follow his own will and to reject God’s way. The book of Philippians gives a vivid picture of what the ‘god of self’ looks like when he states, “Their (non-believer) end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”

The writer in Proverbs realizes the folly of following the god of self when he states, “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 16:25). Pride so easily lures the believer into ‘gratifying the desires of the flesh’ (Galatians 5:16). The apostle Paul knew that the war with self would only become worse when in 2 Timothy he states that, “people will be lovers of self.” But, since the believer is led by the Spirit of God he is now able to shun the selfish desires and passions of the old self. Therefore, the Christian is ‘atheistic’ by rejecting the ‘god of self’, and clinging to the One True God.
Another god that Christians do not believe in is worldly knowledge. Christians are not anti-intellectual. Rather, for the Christian, true ‘knowledge’ is found in fearing the Lord, and not in earthly knowledge or wisdom. In fact, the god of knowledge in an unbelieving world is exposed in 1 Corinthians 1 when Paul writes, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” The only true “knowledge” comes in the gospel of Jesus Christ. To the unbeliever, the Gospel is folly, but to the believer it is “the power of God.”

If anyone had reason to put faith into human knowledge, it was the apostle Paul. Before his conversion to Christianity he says that he was “advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people,” and that he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews.” It was not uncommon for Paul to have had the first five books of the Bible memorized. Talk about intellect! However, Paul knew that the only thing worth “knowing” was Jesus Christ. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” By not putting faith in the knowledge the world offers, the Christian can once again be labeled atheistic.

Christians are also atheistic in that they do not believe in the god of family. Family is good, precious, and beneficial. Family was created by God in the beginning. Families are made to glorify God. However, many in the world value family above God. Family heritage, siblings, and parents are elevated to a status that is more important than Christ. For the Christian, there are principles in Scripture that teach how a family should function (Ephesians 6), but family should never take the place of the living God. Jesus hit on this point in the gospel of Matthew when He said, “…whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). So, the Christian is an atheist in that a commitment to Jesus Christ supersedes commitment to family.

Christians can also be classified as atheists by not believing in politics as the source of ultimate reality. An ambiguous term nonetheless, politics can include: political parties, presidents, authorities, leaders, governments, kingdoms and various institutions. It can also refer to a belief in the ‘collective’ of the body politic as the most important factor of human existence. The writer of Psalms (20) knew that trusting in Kings was futile when he said, “some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Christians respect political persons and processes; Christians pray for political leaders; Christians participate in the political processes of their respective country. But Christians do not view politics as the summa of all things.

Along with the aforementioned gods, Christians do not believe in the god of sports. Our family loves sports. But, sports can’t save anyone. The point is that we have placed our faith in Christ and not sports. Sports can be good, but the world we live in today is one where sports ego and pride have been elevated to an all time high, morphing sporting into a religion with its many centers of worship (arenas & stadiums) and hero worship of specific athletes. There is no doubt that the New Testament is full of sports analogies/images when speaking of the Christian life, but the writers knew that sports, games, or athletics should never be more important than Christ. In fact, by using these sporting analogies, the writers of Scripture often prove the point that the Christian life is not about sports, but about Christ.

For example, in 1 Timothy chapter 4, Paul says that “physical training is of some value, but godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. “ Paul was not na├»ve. He lived in a culture that valued sports; but he also knew that worldly competition and training are temporary and worthless compared to knowing Christ. Because the Christian does not have faith in sports, he or she can be classified once again as an atheist.

Another god that Christians cast aside is the god of sex. Sex is not intrinsically evil – God created it to be enjoyed in a committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationship. Sex becomes a god, even in marriage, when abused and misused, when it is taken out of the context of its intended purposes. Don’t get us wrong, marriage is good. Marriage was created by God and gives a marvelous representation of Christ’s love for the church. However, Paul knew that relationships can cause us to so easily take our eyes off of Jesus. He knew that human relationships could potentially take the place of Christ, and that is why he warns us to worship Christ alone. Jesus and the Apostles also knew how easily human sexuality can be perverted and corrupted. Christians are to love the Lord passionately, while keeping relationships in proper perspective. Therefore, Christians are yet again atheistic by refusing to worship the god of relationships, instead, worshiping the God of the universe.

And what about the god of work? Perhaps the most disguisable, but most common deity set up by man is the exertion he puts forth to further his career. Though hard work and advancement in vocational abilities can be used to bring glory to God, often man will shift his focus from the pursuit of God’s glory to the more immediate self-gratification of climbing various sorts of corporate ladders. It becomes necessary for the Christian to adopt an atheistic view of the god of work as a self-serving being if he is to be a conduit for the glory of God. Therefore, the most prodigious career path that can be taken lies not in the genre of trade one desires to pursue, but the motivation with which one pursues it. If the final result of hard work is monetary success and social prestige, the Christian has conceded to the god of work and is a servant to it. Yet if he relentlessly seeks to bring glory to God – and sees that as his chief purpose - the means of hard work can be extremely useful in such an endeavor.

To this list of gods could be added the gods of false ideas, of false religions of all stripes and types (all ‘isms’ that are not true), the god of tradition, and the god of science as the explanation of all things meaningful as manifested in the scientific method as the lens by which all truth is analyzed. Christians respect many of the aforementioned ideas and issues. Yet, when it comes to making these ideas and issues ultimate reality we choose to disbelieve. So, move over Hitchens and Dawkins and make room for the new atheists on the block who do not believe in any of the gods you suggest have usurped the One True God in who we believe!