Thursday, February 26, 2009

Decisions, decisions...

I'm at that place where I really want to write a new study for use in an adult Sunday school class. Researching and studying and writing and refining a Bible study is something that is hard work, but also something very energizing to me. I haven't developed anything new for a while, and I'm feeling the need to do a new thing. But therein lies my dilemma - what to write about?

I've already got a class in the works, a basic apologetics study with a working title of "Everyday Apologetics - Defending the Faith One Person at a Time." It's based on the book If You Could Ask God One Question. But this is probably better suited to one of our Biblical leadership training classes rather than general Sunday school.

So I'm toying with a couple of other ideas. Like a study of the Gospel. Exploring the depths of the truths of the Gospel of Christ, in all of it's ramifications and implications. This is a subject I am passionate about, and that the church desperately needs. Our collective evangelical understanding of the Gospel is so shallow and superficial, relegated to simple witnessing and "Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." But divorced from the power of the Gospel for day to day living of those whom have been converted by it.

Along those lines, I've also considered doing a class on the cross of Christ. Again, getting beyond our superficial "Jesus died for me" understanding of the crucifixion, and into the full breadth of what Christ accomplished there. Atonement, victory, justification, expiation. Another area we tend to think about less deeply than deserved.

Also thinking about developing a class that explores the new EFCA statement of faith. This was adopted last summer, but I doubt that most people in the EFCA church I'm a part of, or most others as well, even know about it. A great opportunity to do teach some systematic theology in a stealthy manner.

Or also considering doing a study based on Thabiti Anyabwile's new book, What Is A Healthy Church Member? Again, a topic that we don't think deeply enough about, and that has been drastically affected by our consumer mentality as modernized people.

So there's my dilemma. So many options, so little time. Where do I invest myself, what do I focus on? Still thinking and praying for some guidance.

Any recommendations or suggestions from you out there in the ether?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Relational Religion?

Seems that it is popular in evangelical speak these days to frame Christianity in terms of a relationship with Jesus. How many times have you heard someone say, "it's not a religion, it's a relationship"? I'm sure I've said it myself, and I seem to be hearing it more and more recently. Now, I understand the motivation behind this characterization. We contemporary evangelical Christians want to distance ourselves as much as possible from the cold legalism and external piety that the term "religion" often brings to mind. But I have to ask my usual question: is it Biblical?

Of course, it's true that there's a relational component to faith in Jesus Christ. The clearest reference to this is Christ's definition of eternal life in John 17:3, where He says, "This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent." Jesus here defines the state of salvation in terms of relational knowledge of God the Father and God the Son. There's a relational aspect to being in union with Christ, as described in Romans chapter 6 and elsewhere. There's the reality of being adopted into the family of God as children, as described in Galatians 4:6. Paul's letters are also full of references to knowing Christ, like his stated desire in Philippians 3:10 that he "may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death." The term know (Greek γινώσκω, ginosko) is used often in the NT writings in conjunction with Christ. It includes, though, both relational knowledge as well as factual knowledge. And this, I think, is where we go wrong in defining Christianity in terms of relationship as opposed to religion.

Consider Peter's command in 2 Peter 3:18 - "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." Here the same root term for know is used to refer to growing not so much in relationship, but in knowledge of the person and work of Christ. We are to grow in knowing more truths about the Lord Jesus Christ, more Biblical understanding of Him, deeper insights into His grace, His nature, His purposes. In other words, theological knowledge. Not divorced from relationship with Him, but rather informing our relationship with Him.

So let's consider the term "religion." Putting aside the evangelical baggage we've attacnehd to the term, what does itreally mean? Webster defines religion as "conformity in faith and life to the precepts inculcated in the Bible, respecting the conduct of life and duty toward God and man; the Christian faith and practice." Did you get that point stated twice here? Faith and practice. Faith, including both the body of propositional truth that forms the basis for Christian belief, as well as the personal trust in that truth. And practice, the outward conduct that is based on the content of that body of truth and personal trust in it. The classical definition of religion refers both to the theological content and teachings of Christianity, and to the practical outworkings of those teachings and beliefs. This fits perfectly with James' statement that "Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." So the reality is that we are dealing not with an either/or here, but rather a both/and. Chrtistianity is both a religion - a set of truths and beliefs that are to be understood and practiced - as well as a relationship - a union with the One who established that set of truths, and an identity and conduct that flow out of that union. When we escalate one side of this equation above the other, we become imbalanced in our understanding of the nature of true, Biblical Christianity.

So what are the consequences of focusing exclusively on the relational aspect of Christianity, to the depreciation of the religious content and practice aspect? What's the danger? The danger is that this relational focus feeds our natural tendency to want to bring God down to our level, to humanize Him, to make Him our friend and lover and homeboy. It grows out of and promotes our therapeutic misunderstandings of Christianity. It colors and distorts our understanding of who Christ really is. It feeds our post-modern tendency to privatize our Christian faith, making it all about me and Jesus. It promotes a focus on experiences and emotions, and demotes the need for developing doctrinal and Biblical understanding. It's an exaltation of the immanence of God, at the expense of understanding the transcendence of God.

One of my Facebook friends, a teenage girl, recently posted that she had stated to someone that she didn't really have a religion, but more of a relationship. To which the response was, "holy *#%@#! She's dating Jesus!??" I think this was a rather insightful response. It's time we evanglicals stopped dating Jesus and began worshipping Him in spirit and truth, as He commands and deserves. It's time we began seeking to know Him and know more of Him more deeply, so that we can better practice the religious beliefs that relationship is based on. Relational religion. It's Biblical.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Way Back

An excerpt from near the end of David Wells' God In The Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams, to me, captures the path the evangelical church must take in this post-modern era to find the way back to actually being the church of Jesus Christ:

If [the church] is for God, for His truth, for His people, for the alienated and trampled in life, then it must give up what the post-modern world holds most dear: it must give up the freedom to do anything it happens to desire. It must give up self-cultivation for self-surrender, entertainment for worship, intuition for truth, slick marketing for authentic witness, success for faithfulness, power for humility, a God bought on cheap terms for the God who calls us to a costly obedience. It must, in short, be willing to do God's business on God's terms. As it happens, this idea is actually quite old, as old as the New Testament itself, but in today's world it is novel all over again.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Lord, Jesus, or Christ?

Has anyone else noticed that using the name "Jesus" all by itself to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ is becoming more and more popular in evangelicalism lately? In much contemporary worship music, in much evangelical discourse, in much preaching and teaching, referring to the Lord by His given name, apart from His titles, seems to be the norm these days. I hear lots of people talking about following Jesus, but not so much about being Christian. I hear people talking about loving Jesus, but not so much about worshipping the Lord. I had to ask myself, why might that be?

Of course, the name Jesus is the name given by God the Father to Mary for the holy Child to be called. Yeshua, literally Yahweh's salvation, speaking of the purpose of His incarnation. But in surveying the Biblical references, we rarely see this name used in an unqualified sense. Most of the time, He is named in the NT as the Lord Jesus, Jesus Christ, or the Lord Jesus Christ. Names that include not just His given, purpose-focused name, but also that refer to His offices. Lord, the sovereign One. And Christ, the unique and only anointed One. Interestingly, James the 1/2 brother of the Lord Jesus Christ uses this fully qualified title every time he refers to Him in his epistle. Paul's writings only rarely refer to Him as simply Jesus. And it seems that in the history of the church over the ages since, the terms Lord and Christ have most commonly been used to refer to our Lord Jesus Christ.

So what, you ask. Well, maybe nothing. Maybe I'm picking nits again as I am wont to do. But I think that our post-modern evangelical preference for the immanence of God rather than the transcendence of God may be at work here. The titles of Lord and Christ point to offices of the Savior that are fully divine and wholly other than our experience. The Lord, the Sovereign One who created and sustains all things but yet is separate from all things. And the Christ, the one and only appointed and anointed of God the Father for His salvific work. Both offices that are rooted in God's transcendent and holy nature.

But Jesus. Well, that's just His name, His incarnate name. That speaks to us of His immanence, His presence with us and His identification with our plight. We love to sing of Immanuel, God with us. By using just the name Jesus, it somehow humanizes this transcendent God who is so other, so terrifying. We can focus on His humanity, His love for us, His befriending of us. We can bring Him down to earth, make Him our homeboy, interact with Him mano y mano so to speak.

But by doing so, we are in danger of losing sight of who He really is. Focusing on the immanent nature of God while devaluing or ignoring His transcendence is an exercise in futility at best, and idolatry at worst. We lose sight of the majestic and glorious Lord, replacing Him with a man-centered Savior who is there to meet our needs and feed our self. We suppress the reality of His lordship, which demands submission and obedience, and His uniqueness as the Christ, which demands exclusivity in faith and worship. We forge a Jesus of our own making.

I'd prefer to use the model presented in Scripture. The Lord and Master, the sinless Savior of His people, the One and only Son of God. The Lord Jesus Christ. Worthy of all our worship and honor in all that He is.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

"If you can't say anything nice..."

The few of you who actually read this blog may have noticed that I haven't posted anything for several weeks. Truth is, I haven't had anything to say. Well, at least I haven't had anything nice and affirming to say. I've been in a bit of a pessimistic mood. Oh, not pessimistic about life or the goodness and grace of God or His sovereignty or any number of things such as that. But I have quite frankly been pessimistic about the current state and potential future of His church in this post-modern time, the culmination of a long-growing sense of uneasiness in this area.

The past month I've been reading through the first two installments in David Wells' four-book examination of modern and post-modern evangelicalism. I read No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, and I'm currently nearing the end of God in the Wasteland. These books are typical Wells-like heavy sledding in some parts, but paint a very insightful picture of how the evangelical church as a whole has removed the place of theology and doctrine from the center of all to the periphery, and therefore made God small and therapeutic. And lost the sense of His holiness and all the ramifications that has for His people, individually and collectively in the life of the church. And so exposition of the truth of the Word and doctrine has been replaced with an anthropocentric focus on fulfillment of the self. And the more I read, the more I see these observations to be true in the church in general. And I can also see these trends playing out in the local expression of His Body that I am a part of.

Before I go farther, let me affirm that I love my church, my church family, and the leadership God has placed there. I am fully and long-term committed to this church. But we are in a major transition period right now with the departure last fall of our senior pastor of 14 years, a man fully focused on preaching and leading with the Word of God at the center. And we now have an interim senior pastor who I respect and love, but who is not an expositional preacher and has a more programmatic ministry philosophy. And the change has been drastic, at least to me it has. I can now see how a local church can so quickly and quietly depart from the path of being Word-centered and Gospel-driven, to the more evangelical mainstream path of being relationally and therapeutically-driven that characterizes many of today's churches, as observed so well by Wells. I can see that the expositional preaching of the Word is the foundation for the vitality and trajectory of a church, that sets the standard for all aspects of a church's ministry. And I can see that a clear choice is in front of our church, which will be wholly dependent on the man that God brings to assume the senior pastor role.

So while I am a bit pessimistic about the evangelical church at large, and I am even a bit pessimistic about where we are as a local church right now, I am extraordinarily optimistic about God's sovereign control of these affairs. His purposes for His church will not be thwarted. I am trusting in Him, and His guidance of His servants in leadership at HPEFC to bring us through this transition and establish us again with a senior pastor who faithfully exposes the truth of God's Word week by week, for our good and for His glory.