A Study Series for The City Church, New York, Winter, 2002
By Dr. Ralph Blair
Three weeks ago I was in California for a wedding. On Sunday morning, I was taken to Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral where “never is heard a discouraging word.” At least that’s the intention at the palace of “possibility thinking.”
The choir sang Charles Wesley’s glorious hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues To Sing My Great Redeemer’s Praise.” Accompanied by the massive pipe organ and full orchestra, it was an inspiring sound of praise. For that hymn, Wesley had written these lines: “Jesus, the Name that charms our fears, / That bids our sorrows cease; / ‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears, / ‘Tis life, and health, and peace.” But in Schuller’s so-called “Positive Christianity,” Wesley’s biblical theology gets sanitized. They are no longer “sinner’s ears” but “listener’s ears” where the name of Jesus sounds as music. But in singing of “My Great Redeemer’s Praise,” what am I then redeemed from? Isn’t it in the ear of one who knows himself or herself to be a sinner in need of salvation that the name of Jesus – Redeemer – is music? It is sin from which we’re saved. And, of course, there was no confession of sin at the Crystal Cathedral. As Dr. Boyd has reminded us, many churches these days consider a confession of sin to be “a downer.” Schuller does. He vows never to address his congregation as sinners. Well that’s a downer. Without a realistic diagnosis there’s no realistic remedy. If sin brings one down – as it does – the confession of that sin should be anything but “a downer.”
An understandable aversion to the harping on the trivialities that have been called “sins” by the short-sightedly self-righteous is no excuse for evading and denying the ugly reality of our sin as it’s expressed in all its everyday destructiveness. But many modern churches are in denial.
Over against such an ecclesiastical evasion and delusional denial of sin, even non-Christian, secular psychiatrists and psychologists have registered warnings for years. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s book, Whatever Became of Sin? did not deal with sin in biblical terms but, nonetheless did try to take sin seriously. Menninger warned that it’s a fatal mistake to try to turn sin into a mere symptom of social disadvantage or mental disorder. O. Hobart Mowrer, in his American Psychologist essay, ” ‘Sin,’ The Lesser of Two Evils,” argued against “cut[ting] the very roots of our being” by trying to free ourselves from a vocabulary of sin. At the Crystal Cathedral, much is made of the word “hope” – even in its toll-free counseling number – but as Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor points out in her book, Speaking of Sin, our greatest hope lies in reclaiming a serious awareness of sin.
Other features of that Sunday’s service-under-glass, obviously intended to uplift, included a solo rendition of “Climb Every Mountain” by Rodgers and Hammerstein. But climbing up “every mountain,” following after the promise of “every rainbow ‘til [we] find [our] dream” is exactly what’s wrong with generic spirituality these days. And its certainly out-of-place in church. People are looking for fulfillment on their own terms.
Also included that morning: an interview with Jayne Meadows and her son, and the unveiling of a huge oil portrait of Schuller himself.
Well, I suppose it sounds rather “negative” to be so critical of Schuller’s “positive” approach to Christianity. But bear in mind that, for all his talk of “possibility thinking,” he thinks there’s something downright impossible about the Christian doctrine of sin. About that doctrine, he himself is animatedly negative. You see, nobody – not even Robert Schuller – can be only positive. To be positive is necessarily also to be negative. That’s reality – even in Southern California.
Incidentally, Jayne Meadows’ appearance on the program was, itself, an ironic bit of evidence of evil, for she was there to plug Steve Allen’s final book – a book attacking what he called the Vulgarians at the Gate in entertainment.
I’m using this particular example of popular American Christianity today to indicate how very far we’ve drifted from the historic Christianity of the Bible and the creeds. I could offer many more examples from other contemporary, non-traditional ecclesiastical expressions on both the Right and the Left, but that would take too much time from our main focus in this series. Bear in mind, though, that unreasonable accommodation is tempting to us all.
More than many of the churches that have lost their moorings, the Crystal Cathedral’s approach does give a nod to tradition. For example, it touts its membership in the Reformed Church in America, this country’s oldest Protestant denomination. And they do sing the old hymns – even if edited for “feel good” spirituality. And, in his sermon, Schuller’s son did urge the congregation to read the Bible through in 2002. But in significant ways, Crystal Christianity, whether there or elsewhere, is in the tradition of the old American “mind cure” movement – New Thought and Christian Science then, Religious Science and Science of Mind today – obsessed with the soft-headed pseudo-science of the pseudo-therapeutic.
But, like so many other contemporary churches, the Crystal Cathedral is also very up-to-date – and in more than its striking architecture. It’s very much in the mold of what David Brooks describes as the “flexidoxy” of the “Bobo” culture of affluence in America. Brooks, one of our nation’s popular intellectuals, explicates this culture in his best-selling book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. He describes the prized spirituality of today’s American “bourgeois bohemians” – “Bobos” – as an interest in an apparent tradition. “But,” he notes, “they are not interested in having some external authority – pope, priest, or rabbi—tell them how to lead their lives.” They themselves want the right to pick and choose what to believe and how to live their lives. It seems that if and when they come to church, they insist on the a la carte menu. They put a high premium on meeting what they themselves insist on defining as their “felt needs.” Evidently they like their spirits as they’re told to like their Sprite: “Obey your thirst.”
According to Brooks, Bobos want to think of truth as totally relative – they want a “rigor [but] without submission” and an “orthodoxy [but] without obedience.” He says that Bobos believe that the greatest heresy would be to have the church “impose” its morality on them. Brooks says (with biting irony) that, to Bobos, “Maybe instead of a Last Judgment there will just be a Last Discussion.”
Now I really don’t wish to be unkind. But watering down or withholding the good news of salvation and sanctification of historic biblical Christianity – especially as if doing contemporary pagans a big favor – is the unkindest cut of all. And that is being done today in churches all over the country and all over the spectrum – from the fundamentalist fortresses of the Religious Right through the megachurches of pop-psych consumerism to the mainline liberal congregations that do little more than baptize the politically-correct agenda of the Left-wing of the Democratic Party. They substitute what Paul called “another gospel that’s no gospel” for what Jude said was “once and for all delivered” to the first Christians – what Peter called the prophets’ words and the Lord and Savior’s commandments. [II Peter 3:2]
We all can be badly influenced by the Zeitgeist of “bourgeois bohemianism” as well as by popular ecclesiastical expression. But I hope that we are here today for this series because we are hungry for that most unusual, yet profound and basic, Christian doctrine that we never dreamed up on our own. It is that which has met the test of 2,000 years of cross-cultural human need. As in Jesus’ own ministry and in the church’s earliest days in the rivalries of Middle Eastern Judaism and the motley multicultural Mediterranean world of paganism, we in the 21st century are – if we are serious – in the position of counter-culture for the sake of the world and the greater glory of God. Nothing less is at stake. We are called to worship God in His Spirit and in His Truth. And we’re to do so with every ounce of who and what we are by His grace. In trying to do so, serious Christians will, as Flannery O’Connor said, be pushing as hard against the spirit of our age as the spirit of our age is pushing against us and our Christian faith.
Now ever since this new City Church series of lectures was announced, I’ve heard people ask: “What do you mean by ‘Plain’ Christianity?” What I mean is what Anglicans John Stott and C. S. Lewis called, respectively, “Basic” Christianity and “Mere” Christianity. Another Anglican, J. B. Phillips, called it “Plain” Christianity. It’s straightforward Christianity, simply stated. It’s clearly Christianity, unobstructed, unqualified. It’s the Christianity that serious Christians have believed in common across the many centuries and across the many cultures, however else there may be disagreement on more minor matters of doctrine or practice. Plain Christianity is what a Lutheran theologian calls “the big picture or meta-narrative of Christian existence.” [Charles P. Arand] It’s the Christianity of the creeds. It’s what separates the Christian worldview from all other worldviews. It’s the Christianity that begins, not with us, but with God – the “Maker of Heaven and Earth,” thus distinguishing Christianity from, for example, New Age pantheism and panentheism in which there is no distinction between the divine and all else. It’s the Christianity that celebrates “the distinction between the Creator and creation [that] lays the sine qua non foundation for the First Commandment’s prohibition against false gods.” [Arand] The plain Christianity of the creeds worships the Triune God alone: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Plain Christianity bows before the Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It cherishes God’s incarnation in Christ and is in awe of Christ’s life and his suffering, death, resurrection and hopes for his second coming. The plain Christianity of the creeds honors God’s Holy Spirit who creates us as the Church, the Bride and Body of Christ.
Observing Christianity so defined, we’re immediately struck with the question of authority. Why should Christianity be so defined? Who says so? “God says so!” is the historic response to this question. “God says so” is another way of pointing to God’s revelation. This matter of authority underlies a Christian theory of knowledge and thus it is encountered at the heart of the theology of plain Christianity. We know that God is and Who God is because God says so. And we know who we are because God says so. Behind what we know about God is God’s letting us in on what may be known about Him and what may be known about His relationship with us.
God says so throughout the natural world as well as in human nature – all creation of His hands. In Luther’s words: “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees, and flowers, and clouds, and stars.” The Reformer got this straight from the Psalmists and Paul, inspired by God. God says so – more clearly, more fully – through His Word, in the Bible as well as in Christ Jesus, God’s most revelatory reflection of Himself. In Jesus the Christ, we see the face of no generic god. Rather, in the Son we see the Father. Jesus said so. And as Paul put it, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.” Duke University’s Will Willimon points out that here, it “is not that God was in Jesus but that God was in Jesus, reconciling the world to himself.” He says that “the great, invigorating challenge … is not that Jesus was god, but that God was Jesus.” This God, revealed in Jesus, is indeed no generic god.
Now without God’s revealing truth, whatever we’d think about ourselves or about ultimate reality would rest on our mere guesses or wishful thinking. Without God’s Word, it would be your word or my word, your wishful thinking or mine. But, of course, without God, there would be no you and no me to have any word or wishful thought of our own. Indeed, it’s revealed that without the “Word [who was] made flesh,” there would have been no creation at all.
Many contemporary New Yorkers scoff at the idea of revelation from God conveyed in the Bible. But, judging from all their enthusiasm for New Age “spirituality,” they seem to have no problem with what is promoted as “processing information from the collective unconscious” “psychic mediums” whose ads promise that “there’s someone on the other side with a message just for you.” As with all self-referenced spirituality, even revelations they say they receive are merely – as they themselves proclaim – “connections with [their] own inner guides,” their own “inner beings.” It’s not for nothing that such nonsense finds a home on the “self-help” shelf.
But true revelation must originate outside ourselves, for we are too imbedded in relativity and self-interest. True revelation must come from what Descartes and Dooyeweerd called that Archimedian point, fixed and immovable, outside the universe of all created reality. We not only need a God’s-eye view of the whole that we simply cannot see from within our own personal and provincial perspectives, but we need a point of view that appreciates the fact revealed by God to Isaiah: Thus says the Lord: “My ways are not your ways. Neither are my thoughts, your thoughts.” [55:8f] We need to take very seriously that insightful experience-based wisdom that’s recorded in Ecclesiastes: “What exists is beyond our own ability to reach. It is deep down, deeper than anyone can grasp on his own.” [7:24]
So, we see that God’s revelation is crucial to true spirituality. Without God’s revelation, we’re mired in a spirituality all skewed and short-sighted, self-serving and self-centered. By God’s grace, any sober sense of ourselves is aware that this is the case.
Christians understand God’s revelation to be God’s gift. It could not be otherwise. To receive God’s revelation, we need receptive hearts and minds. These, too, are God’s gifts. So we should pray for receptivity to God’s revelation in the midst of the contemporary cacophony of competitive claims to truth.
But before we pray, let’s take note of what Jesus said to his rabbinical critics when he spoke of his teaching’s having been given to him by God who, he said, sent him. He, too, had to deal with the basic question of authority: Who says so? It wasn’t going to be his word against theirs but God’s word against theirs, even though it was said of him, that unlike them, he spoke with authority rather than having to footnote everything from one of their rabbinical schools. Even when he cited the sacred Scripture of Israel, he didn’t give it their self-serving spin. So he said to them: “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” [John 7:17]
What does this mean for us? Evidently, unless we’re committed to doing God’s will, there’s really no point in asking what God’s will is. Unless we’re making a faith commitment to act on what we say we want to know, there’s no point to the inquiry. God’s truth is not something to be judged by us. God’s truth judges us. As God’s truth, it stands by God’s own authority. God’s truth is something to be thankfully received for the purpose of thankful obedience – though, of course, since it is the truth, it does stand up to serious investigation by one who wants to know God’s will in order to do God’s will. And if it really is God who is speaking, what would matter more than to act on what He says? So then, with this in mind, let us pray for ears to hear and eyes to see as we continue our study. Let us pray.
God, Truth, Light, Love and Life:
We thank You that You are not silent. Give us ears to hear. We thank You that You don’t want us to stumble in the dark if we desire to walk in Your Light. Give us eyes to see. We ask for these gifts so that, already loved to the uttermost by You, we might, in our turn, love You with all we are and have, and might live Your will in this world. We ask this in Jesus’ name, with thanksgiving. Amen.
So: Where to begin? Here, for a good beginning, are some words of wisdom from a young German theologian hanged by the Nazis. Said Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Either I determine the place in which I will find God, or I allow God to determine the place where he will be found. If it is I who say where God will be, I will always find there a God who in some way corresponds with me, is agreeable to me, fits in with my nature. But if it is God who says where he will be, then that will truly be a place which at first is not agreeable to me at all, which does not fit so well with me. That place is the cross of Christ. … The entire Bible, then, is the Word in which God allows himself to be found by us. Not a place which is agreeable to us or makes sense a priori, but instead a place which is strange to us and contrary to our nature. Yet the very place in which God has decided to meet us …[reveals a God] who is altogether strange to us, whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. … God is completely other than the so-called eternal verities. Theirs is an eternity made up of our own thoughts and wishes. But God’s Word begins by showing us the cross.”
This cross of Christ is the crux of Christianity. And so the dean of the Duke University chapel is right to argue against so much contemporary preaching that blathers on about “an amorphous ‘love’ without giving it the cruciform shape that makes Christian love possible – and so demanding.” [Will Willimon] In our generic god culture, we’re too easily seduced into the vocabulary of an amorphous “spirituality” that demands nothing but a mistaken notion of tolerance. Dean Willimon says: “I’m trying to discipline myself, whenever I hear someone around here say ‘spirituality,’ to think ‘idolatry.’ ” That’s refreshing. He asserts: “We cannot make this [Christian] faith mean anything we want. There is mystery, room for wonder, doubt, disagreement. But there are also these nasty particularities that make the gospel unavoidably abrasive, discordant, and so very interesting.” He goes on: “Rather than attempt to smooth out the rough places between us and the good news of Jesus Christ, … [we] ought to accentuate the peculiarities, highlight the distance between our ways and God’s way, a distance that is not bridged by simply smoothing down the rough edges until we can’t tell the difference between the incarnate Son of God and (in Flannery O’Connor’s phrase) ‘our own sweet concoction.’ ” He urges that we “enjoy how very odd, and therefore how wonderfully engaging, is salvation as embodied in Jesus.” With such an odd God, and odd gospel, no wonder O’Connor added: “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd.”
If you’re serious about knowing God, it is the Spirit of God himself who is gifting you with such a desire. Contrary to a very popular notion, we don’t look for God on our own. C. S. Lewis heard someone speak of “man’s search for God” and Lewis retorted: “Man’s search for God? You might as well speak of the mouse’s search for the cat!” We’re not, on our own, looking for God. We’re looking out for God looking out for ourselves. We’re like Adam and Eve, hiding behind the trees of the Garden and like Jonah, speeding away from God as fast as that little ship could plow through the sea. We’re not looking for the One against whom we’ve sinned. We’re not looking for the One whom we would depose.
So if we’re to grasp what Christianity is plainly about, we must not consult ourselves apart from our knowledge of God’s revelation. We must not depend upon the rationalizing wisdom of this world. We must not succumb to our contemporary society’s self-serving sensibilities and sensitivities. That, one might say, is a tall order today. Well it was just as tall an order in Paul’s day. It’s always been a tall order, because it’s always been true, and truth is a tall order indeed. People tend to shun the Truth – Christ Himself – in favor of a seemingly more convenient “truth,” a contrived “truth,” a cheaper “truth,” a tall “truth” that’s not true at all.
Now on this and the next two Sundays, we’re looking at Plain Christianity under three headings, though the material won’t be all that compartmentalized. We’ll be touching on some of the same themes in all three lectures for these themes all relate to each other. In the second and third sessions, we’ll make time for questions and discussion. All three presentations are entitled “Christianity is Christ.”
Part I: “Christianity is Christ: Christ Jesus.”
Part II: “Christianity is Christ: The Christian”
Part III: “Christianity is Christ: Christian Faith & Life”
At the end of these three weeks, I’ll give you some suggestions for further study in some selected books and Web sites.
Part I: Christianity Is Christ: Christ Jesus
Christianity is not a religion among the world’s religions. As a British biblical scholar puts it: “There is – surprisingly – very little about religion in the Bible” and what there is, is overwhelmingly negative. Says he: “Religion is man-made, the gospel comes direct from God.” [A. R. C. Leaney] We’ll miss the essence of Christianity if we think of it as simply one of many socially constructed expressions of the so-called “spiritual quest” of humanity. Christianity is not the same as Christendom. The worldly power of Christendom was at its political “zenith” [Alan Richardson] in the 11th century, the same era in which, apart from monasteries, Christianity was in spiritual doldrums.
Christianity is Christ. It cannot be said better. From the beginning, Christ Jesus called himself “The Way.” [John 14:6] From the beginning, the company of his followers, the earliest church, was known as “The Way.” [Acts 9:2; 24:14] And from the beginning, the church has been called “The Body of Christ.” Christianity is, indeed, Christ.
But “the Christ” that Christianity is, is not one of the “christs” bandied about in much of contemporary “spirituality.” For example, I found a New Age book called Christ Consciousness. Its subtitle gives it away: “Emergence of the Pure Self Within.” There again is that self-referenced “spirituality.” The book is promoted with these words: “This book could well have been called Moses consciousness, or Buddha consciousness, or love consciousness. … Within each one of us exists the consciousness that can change this world, and ourselves, in a positive way. Each one of us has the ability to establish communication with this consciousness. The time is now for all true seekers to make a spiritual journey, and to allow a spiritual consciousness to emerge from within us and change our lives forever.” Nonsense. But in a lost and biblically-illiterate culture, it sounds so nice.
If we’re going to be intellectually honest in speaking of Christ, there’s only one place to look for primary information. And that is the one place so many of our elite contemporaries refuse to look. If and when they do take a look at the Book, they do so only through a preconceived and practiced prejudice against it. Nonetheless, the primary source on Jesus Christ is The Bible. And, as Peter declared, “no one can interpret any Scripture on his own, by himself” – without the aid of the Spirit of God who uttered the revelation in the first place. [II Peter 1:20; 2:1] But nobody who goes to the Bible to find the truth in order to do the truth will be left without divine guidance.
According to God’s revelation in the Bible, Christ is the Son of the Living Love we call God. Christ is God’s uniquely personal revelation. Christ is God’s Anointed One, the Messiah. It was in him, in history, that Love was reconciling a sinful and dying world to Himself. It’s been said in one way or another for 2,000 years now – and lately in these words by Richard John Neuhaus: “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.” While physicists still look for a so-called “theory of everything,” another Christian puts it this way: “Jesus is God’s explanation for everything.” [Eugenia Price]
Does this sound arrogant? It does sound arrogant to many of our contemporaries. After all, we’re living here in Manhattan, the epicenter of the dogma that declares: “How dare you imply that Christianity is superior to other views!” “How dare you say that Christianity is the truth about everything!”
Today’s elite culture of religious pluralism dictates that no religious notion should or can have a monopoly on religious truth. This religious relativism is sometimes preached by way of the illustration of the three blind men and the elephant. The three blind men argue over the nature of elephant. Each insists (intolerantly, it’s implied) that he knows best the nature of elephant. But each insists that elephant is something very different from what the other two say it is. It’s explained by religious relativists that, quite understandably and quite arrogantly, the blind man who is holding the elephant’s tail insists elephant is like a rope, while the blind man who is hugging the elephant’s leg insists elephant is like a tree, and the blind man who is leaning against the elephant’s side insists that elephant is like a wall. This story is supposed to prove how silly it is to think that anyone is in touch with the entire elephant. Each is right for himself and each is wrong if he insists his interpretation is right for the others. Of course, what is not noticed by the dogmatic relativists who argue this way is that they themselves assume that they do see the entire elephant. They insist that they are right – and right for all. Thus, they’re as arrogant as they say the three blind men are.
Now when serious Christians speak of God, we’re not speaking of some vague, generic god. We’re speaking of the God of the Jews, the God revealed to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And, more specifically, we’re speaking of the God of one specific first century Jew – Jesus of Nazareth.
Biblically-serious Christians believe that the Spirit of this God draws people to Jesus Messiah – Jesus Christ – who, as the Light of the world, really does “enlighten everyone God puts on this earth,” as John says. [John 1:9]
In due time – what Scripture calls “the fullness of time” – the Messiah, Christ Jesus, God the Son, was born in Bethlehem and grew to manhood in Palestine. He was put to death outside the walls of Jerusalem in AD 33. Thus, Christianity is rooted in history. The Bible records both his birth and his death as historical events – “in those days” of Caesar Augustus and in the time when Pontius Pilate was Rome’s procurator of Judea and Samaria. The Christ who is Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, one who dwelt at a specific time in history and in a specific place on this earth.
In between his birth and death, for some three years of witness, he showed what God was really like, and he called people to “Turn around, trust me.” He said he was announcing the reign of God. He claimed that God’s reign was at hand in him. This was not at all welcomed by the establishment, and so he was finally crucified by the connivance of the Jewish Temple elite and their pagan Roman overlord. Yet in truth, nobody took his life from him. As his followers reported his saying from the beginning, he voluntarily laid down his life for the salvation of the world. And after three days in the grave, God the Father raised him from the dead and he was seen and touched by many hundreds of people. Christ Jesus is now alive forevermore as Savior and Lord. He is, Himself, the sovereign reign of God, the servant reign of compassion. And he is coming back – as He promised.
This theology is not something that evolved over centuries in the politics of Christendom. It is the Good News Christ’s earliest followers proclaimed – even to martyrdom (the literal meaning of witness). They were Jews, monotheists, who took this message of salvation to other Jews and then to the pagans, the goyim, throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. And they all willingly submitted to torture and death rather than renounce this early and high Christology.
The canon theologian of Westminster Abbey, N. T. Wright, points out that it was in view of thoroughly pagan Corinth, dominated by pagan assumptions, pagan hopes, pagan motives, and pagan lifestyles that Paul proclaimed what he calls “surely one of the most striking Christological formulations ever written in any century.” Wright observes the relevance of this for our own day when he draws parallels with the “multi-faceted paganism that is rapidly replacing post-enlightenment Deism or atheism as the major feature of modern Western culture.” He notes that Paul “takes the [Shema, the] Jewish formula which is the most basic expression of Jewish monotheism, and places Jesus at the heart of it.” Paul bases his Christology in this central Jewish prayer (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God.”). [I Cor 8:4] This is especially striking when Paul’s Greek text is compared to the Greek Old Testament text of the prayer in Deuteronomy 6:4. Paul glosses the term “God” with “the Father” and “Lord” with “Jesus Messiah” and gives exposition in each phrase. As Wright explains: “There can be no mistake: Paul has placed Jesus within an explicit statement, drawn from the Old Testament’s best known monotheistic text, of the doctrine that Israel’s God is the one and only God, the creator of the world. The Shema was already, at this stage of Judaism, in widespread use as the Jewish daily prayer. Paul has redefined it Christologically, producing what we can only call a sort of Christological monotheism.” As Paul put it in his letter to Colassian Christians: “In Christ, all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” [Col 2:9]
We see this same high and early Christology in the testimonies of other New Testament writers as well. In the very first sentence of his second letter, Peter linked “God and Savior Jesus Christ” by a single Greek article. [II Pet 1:1] The Old Testament name for Yahweh is applied to Jesus. This, of course, is what he had done in his Jerusalem sermon on the Day of Pentecost. [Acts 2:21]
Here’s the testimony of John [5:39-47]. Jesus was telling his own contemporary religious authorities that though he heard his Father speaking to him, they never had heard his Father. Then Jesus said: “You study the Scriptures because you think that in them you will find eternal life. And they themselves speak about me! Yet you are not willing to come to me in order to have life. I am not looking for praise from men. But I know you; I know that you have no love for God in your hearts. I have come with my Father’s authority, but you have not received me; when someone comes with his own authority, you will receive him. You like to have praise from one another, but you do not try to win praise from the only God; how, then, can you believe? Do not think, however, that I will accuse you to my Father. Moses is the one who will accuse you – Moses, in whom you have hoped. If you had really believed Moses, you would have believed me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how can you believe my words?”
“Turn around and trust me.” That’s what he kept saying throughout his ministry. As Wright explains, Jesus “was telling his hearers to give up their agendas and to trust him and his way of being Israel. … Jesus was offering as a counter-agenda an utterly risky way of being Israel, the way of turning the other cheek and going the second mile, the way of losing your life to gain it.”
In Jesus, “God’s purpose would not after all be to vindicate Israel as a nation against the pagan hordes, winning the theological battle by military force. On the contrary, Jesus announced, increasingly clearly, that God’s judgment would fall not on the surrounding nations but on the Israel that had failed to be the light of the world. Who then would be vindicated in the great coming debacle?” asks Wright. “Back comes the answer with increasing force and clarity: Jesus himself and his followers. They were now the true, reconstituted Israel. They would suffer and suffer horribly, but God would vindicate them.”
Wright parenthetically notes that this view is sometimes taken to be “in some way anti-Jewish.” But, as he well observes, Jesus’ approach is in “the noblest and most deep-rooted traditions in Judaism” itself – “that of critique from within. The Pharisees were deeply critical of most of their Jewish contemporaries. The Essenes regarded all Jews except themselves as heading for judgment; … That did not make the Pharisees, or the Essenes, anti-Jewish.” The self-critical tradition was as old and as true to the God of Israel as the message of all the ancient prophets of Israel. They were relentless in their criticism of Israel for her repeatedly breaking covenant and failing to be the light to the gentiles they were called to be as far back as the calling of Abraham and Sarah. The prophets’ tirades against Israel were no more anti-Jewish than Christian denunciations of views and activities of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Bishop Spong or the Reverend Al Sharpton are anti-Christian.
In his own ministry, “Jesus was claiming to be speaking for Israel’s true ancestral traditions, denouncing what he saw as deviation and corruption at the very heart of Israel’s present life. … His aim was to be the means of God’s reconstitution of Israel. … He was, in short, announcing the kingdom of God – not the simple revolutionary message of the hard-liners but the doubly revolutionary message of the kingdom that would overturn all other agendas, including the revolutionary one. … he was thereby claiming both the role of Messiah and the vocation of redemptive suffering.” [Wright]
And that redemptive suffering went all the way to the cross. The cross of Christ is the crux of plain Christianity. It is at the cross of Christ that we may see most dramatically, the self-sacrificing love of God for all the world. That’s how much “God so loved the world.”
Part II: Christianity is Christ: The Christian
We hear a lot of arguments these days about whether or not America is a “Christian” country. There’s no doubt, of course, that most of those who founded and built America very much identified themselves as Christians. And most Americans still identify themselves as Christians. According to a new random telephone poll of more than 50,000 Americans, conducted by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the proportion of Americans now identifying themselves as Christians stands at some 77%. That’s down almost 10% from a decade ago – but still, it’s most of us. The survey finds that 52% of Americans identify as Protestants while 24.5% identify as Catholics. And though 14.1% of the surveyed adhered to no religion, only 0.4% identified themselves as atheists. That’s an interesting statistic to keep in mind in all of today’s fuss for the rights of American atheists – though, I’m sure we do have more than our fair share of atheists here in Manhattan. And they do deserve protection as Americans.
Of course, we all know that there are all sorts of “Christians.” So what do these City University findings really mean? What, indeed, especially when other research indicates that it is very difficult to detect any difference between the lifestyles and choices of self-identified Christians and the rest of the population. You’ve heard the challenge: If you were arrested for being a Christian – as people are arrested in some parts of the world – would there be enough evidence to convict you?
There are all sorts of “Protestants” and all sorts of “Catholics.” And, more and more, in our current cafeteria culture of spirituality, people are concocting their own convenient versions of “Christianity.” They make it up to suit themselves, without regard – or, indeed, in deliberate disregard, for historic, biblical Christianity. So: so what if the numbers are what they are or are up or down in the last ten years? What do these statistics say about the seriousness of these self-identified “Christians?” Really, they say nothing much at all.
A much more important question is this: How would you respond to such a survey of religious identity? Would you identify as a “Christian” and what would your answer mean?
As you probably know, the term “Christianity” is not found anywhere in the Bible. But the term, “Christian” or kristianos is found in the Bible. It’s found in three places in the New Testament. The followers of Jesus had been called, variously, the “brethren” [Acts 1:16], “all who believed” [Acts 2:44], the people “of the Way” [Acts 9:2; 22:4], the “saints,” i.e., those who are set apart for God [Acts 9:13] and the “disciples” [Acts 11:26].
The first occurrence of the term “Christian” is in Acts 11:26 – perhaps as a nickname. Luke writes: “It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” This Syrian assembly, sometime in the 40s, was the first congregation of Christ’s followers where ex-pagans predominated – hence, the Latin base of the Greek term. The kristian(o)i may have meant Christ’s soldiers (as in the galbiani or Galba’s soldiers). The kristian(o)i may also have meant Christ’s slaves (as in the caesariani (or Caesar’s slaves). Obviously, the name “Christian” denotes an absolute allegiance to Christ Jesus from all within his household.
The second instance of the word “Christian” is in Acts 26:28, where Luke is relating a conversation between King Herod Agrippa II and the prisoner Paul. The Apostle asks Agrippa: “Do you believe the prophets of Israel? I know that you do!” The king responds satirically: “In such short order you think you’ll make me a Christian?”
The third instance of the term is in Peter’s first letter where he writes: “If you suffer because you are a Christian, don’t be ashamed of it, but thank God that you bear Christ’s name.” [4:16]
Christians are to bear Christ’s name unashamedly. That’s why we’re called Christians – the slaves and soldiers of Christ. We are not “our own.” We belong to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We are people who are under orders. We’re not a self-constituted club or clique.
Serious Christians have always recognized that we are sinners saved by God’s grace in the unique life, atoning death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, God in flesh, and that we are privileged to be called his people. That’s as true today as ever. We are, today and always, by God’s mercy, alive only in this Person known as Jesus Christ. Apart from him we’re dead. We have been “born again,” “born from above,” as Jesus phrased it in his conversation with Nicodemus. [John 3] We have been reborn by his Spirit.
Some of us can point to a particular time and place of our rebirth. We look back to a sobering and life-changing event when, as John Wesley remembered, his “heart was strangely warmed” as he heard the gospel – as it were, for the first time, even though he’d been an Anglican priest for years.
For others among us – children of the Covenant from childhood – we can’t remember when we were not Christians. In the words of John Donne: “God wrapped me in his covenant and derived me of Christian parents. It was Christ’s blood I drank in the womb and Christ’s milk that I suckled at my mother’s breast. The first words that I heard were the words of Christians. The first image I knew was the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Tragically, fewer and fewer children are having that childhood these days. But even when you’ve been reared in a loving Christian home, there comes a time when – in one way or another – you need to own the Covenant for yourself. We cannot live by the faithing of our fathers and mothers. There comes a time when you begin to take seriously for yourself what it truly must mean for you to be a Christian. Each of us must realize that, as C. S. Lewis put it, “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.” In that realization, what is our response to be?
By God’s Spirit, we Christians are not only reborn into Christ but we are being recreated to conform to the image of Christ. Guess who said the following: “Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion – it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ.” Maybe you’ll be surprised to know that Billy Graham said that. Proceeding across the field to the podium at the conclusion of a Billy Graham Crusade can be only the beginning of one’s life in Christ. One must then proceed across the fields of everyday life, walking with Christ and learning from Christ, as a disciple of Christ. It is through our faithing and discipleship that we are growing into the stature of Christ, being conformed into the image of the One who is our Savior who died for us and our sovereign Lord whom we worship. The call to follow Christ, to live for Christ, is put in these words by Lewis: “Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.”
Now in Paul’s teaching, we Christians are “in Christ” and Christ is “in us.” What does Paul mean?
First of all, as he told the Corinthian Christians: “God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus.” [I Cor 1:30] He says God made Christ our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption. Therefore, says Paul – echoing Jeremiah [9:24] – “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” He then goes on to affirm: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” [I Cor 2:2] Here is Paul’s own succinct expression of “plain” Christianity. Here it is again: that cross. Contrary to counterfeit Christianity, there is no Christianity without the bloody cross at Calvary. It all comes together at the cross – the very place where it all had seemed to come apart. That, by the way, is why church doors are painted red. We enter the Church through the blood of Christ.
To the Galatian Christians, Paul says he’s “once again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in [them].” [Gal 4:19] He’s speaking here of “a vital personal relationship between Christians and God through Christ by the Spirit.” [Richard N. Longenecker] Paul is contending against the Galatians’ drifting away from the pure gospel of grace he’d preached to them and he’s struggling to make sure that they grow up to be conformed to Christ. But unless they continue, rooted in that grace, how can they grow in grace?
To the Ephesian Christians, Paul writes that he prays “that Christ might dwell in your hearts through faith, that you might be rooted and grounded in love.” [Eph 3:17] In 1st century thinking – as in our own – the deepest center of a person is his or her heart. It is that center of a person’s being “where the Spirit does his strengthening and renovating work.” [Andrew T. Lincoln] The point of this, according to Paul, is that the Christian “may be rooted and grounded in love.” As a biblical commentator observes: “Love is the fundamental principle of the new age, of Christian existence in general and not just of Christian character.” [Lincoln] Here we see that seamless union of faith and love based in the intimate union of Christ and the Christian. The love is none other than God’s love, embodied in Christ and lived out in Christ’s Body of believers. (More on that next week, as we look further into Christian faith and life.)
Paul rejoices over the fact that it’s true also for the Colossian Christians: Christ is in or among them, too – the goyim, of all people! – as “the hope of glory.” [Col 1:27] Paul here carries through his theme of the death of the world in the first Adam (the Adam of Genesis) and the life of the world in the last Adam (Jesus, the Christ).
So what does Paul mean that the Christian is “in” Christ and that Christ is “in” Christians? Simply put: that Christians constitute Christ’s Body – what we call “the Church of Christ.”
Who is a Christian? A Christian is one who trusts in Christ and in whom God dwells, in Christ, one who is reconciled to God in Christ for the sake of the world and the glory of God.
What does such life in Christ look like as it is lived out for the sake of the world and the glory of God? That’s the main focus of next week’s lecture, but let’s take a peek.
Ask the opponents of the early church what Christians are and you’ll hear that Christians are those who refuse to bow down to the gods and goddesses of this world and refuse to avenge themselves. Would that we, today, were guilty as charged. Ask Nietzsche about Christians: They’re “more harmful than any vice [because they have] sympathy for the botched and weak.” Would that we were guilty as charged. Ask Ted Turner and he’ll tell you Christians are “losers.” Would that we were guilty as charged.
Jesus asked his disciples to think about it: If the world hated him as much as it did, should we who are identified by his name expect to be treated any better? They killed him. And they’ve been killing his followers for two millennia. In the 20th century alone, more Christians were killed for their faith in Christ than in all the rest of Christian history. Today, from Malaysia to Mauritania, from Vietnam north through China and west through Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and across north Africa, Christians are harassed, deprived of possessions or liberties, forbidden to worship together or to share the gospel with non-Christians, imprisoned, tortured and killed because they put their trust in Jesus Christ and refuse to renounce him. And elsewhere, such as Indonesia, Turkey, Israel, Ethiopia and Columbia, where the governments make some attempt to protect freedom of religion, Christians are nonetheless victims of mob violence because of their witness.
The man who has preached in person to more people around the world than anyone in history and has personally witnessed more people making initial professions of faith in Christ than anyone in history – Billy Graham – says: “It is unnatural for Christianity to be popular.” Of course that’s true. It’s unreasonable to expect that serious Christians will be popular, let alone taken seriously by most people in this world.
Even in the democratic West – even in America – serious Christianity is ridiculed by the cultural elite in academia, the courts, and the media. Serious Christians are not taken seriously. Contemporary non-Christians are woefully ignorant of Christianity. And so they just don’t “get it.” They don’t understand what makes Christians tick. Moreover, serious Christians are a perceived threat to the enthroned self of these postmodernist gatekeepers. So the secularists are mounting a muzzling attack against Christian evangelism – derogatorily denounced as “proselytizing.”
The oddness of Christians has often been noted – even by Christians. Last week we mentioned Flannery O’Connor’s quip: “You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd.” There’s no question we Christians are an odd bunch. In the words of A. W. Tozer: “A real Christian is an odd number … . He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen, talks familarly every day to Someone he cannot see, expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another, empties himself in order to be full, admits he is wrong so he can be declared right, goes down in order to get up, is strongest when he is weakest, richest when he is poorest, and happiest when he feels worst. He dies so he can live, forsakes in order to have, gives away so he can keep, sees the invisible, hears the inaudible, and knows that which passeth knowledge.” He adds that the image of a Christian “as a smiling, congenial, asexual religious mascot … whose head is always bobbing in the perpetual Yes of universal acquiescence is not the image found in the Scriptures of truth.” George MacDonald agreed. Said he: Christians must count themselves Christians on no “other ground than that they are slaves of Jesus Christ, the children of God, and free from themselves. … ‘Do not hesitate,’ says the Lord, ‘to speak the truth that is in you; never mind what they call you; proclaim from the housetop; fear nobody.’”
C. S. Lewis notes that oddness is a characteristic of all true reality – so why should we not expect such oddness in those who are aliens, sojourners, only passing through this world? Said Lewis: “Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. … Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed.” He says: “That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity.”
So who is a Christian? A Christian is this odd and alien and threatening creature called to be a disciple of
Christ for the sake of the world and the glory of God. Already everlastingly alive through Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection, a Christian is loved forever into fellowship with the Triune God Who is Love Himself.
One last matter before we conclude:
Back in the 19th century, Christians coming out of the revivals in Kentucky, called themselves simply “Christians” – without further denominational, theological or ideological identification. Others asked them, rather disparagingly: Do you think you’re the only Christians? Their leader, Alexander Campbell replied: “We are not the only Christians. But we are Christians only.” That single-minded discipline (at least seemingly) without further allegiance, is just what Jesus called for in his disciples. Interestingly, some of Campbell’s descendents went on to call themselves “Disciples of Christ” or simply “churches of Christ.”
Today, the disparaging question put to Christians is a little different. Today we’re asked: Do you think you’re the only people of God?
An illustration of this contemporary hostility is a recent New York Times “Q&A” with the president of Union Seminary (Joseph C. Hough, Jr.) It was entitled: “Acknowledging That God is Not Limited to Christians.” He argues that mere Christian good will and tolerance is “not sufficient in a world of religious pluralism” – as though the world in which Christians have lived has never before been one of a plurality of religions. He’s unsatisfied with Karl Barth’s granting that other faiths may, indeed, be enlightened by God, though as “lesser lights.” He disdains Paul Tillich’s granting that there are, throughout the non-Christian world, “Christians incognito.” He doesn’t approve of Karl Rahner’s talk of “anonymous Christians.” Union’s president will accept nothing less than granting “full recognition of the adequacy of other religions to transform human beings with hope and promise.” He also insists on a cessation of traditional Christian mission or evangelism. He doesn’t seem to notice that he is insisting, in effect, that his is the only true take on Christianity and religion and that those who disagree with him are just plain wrong. His appeal for seeming acceptance is a decree, in effect, for discrimination. Such is the irrationality of postmodernist pluralism.
Now it’s one thing to observe – as do Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles – that God does have His people apart from the Jews and is worshipped, even ignorantly, apart from Jesus. Didn’t God declare through Amos: “Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites? … Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” [9:7] Didn’t Paul tell the pagan philosophers at Mars Hill that he intended to reveal to them the God they worshipped in ignorance? [Acts 17:22-23] Didn’t Peter say that he was convinced that God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who hold Him in awe and do what’s right? [Acts 10:34-35]
But it’s quite another thing to say that there is an indigenous efficacy in religions apart from what God Almighty, in His saving grace, is doing through the Jews and Jesus to bring to fulfillment His Covenants with Noah and Abraham: to bless all the people of all the earth. In Paul’s typology: All died in Adam and all are made alive in Christ. [Rom 5:12-21; I Cor 15:21, 45).
So what about us, the people Jesus’ brother James called “the first fruits among all the creatures of the Father of lights?” [James 1:17-18] We Christians are these odd and alien and threatening creatures called to be disciples of Christ, the Savior of all humankind [Luke 2:29-32], called for the sake of the world and the glory of God. Already everlastingly alive through Christ Jesus’ death and resurrection, we’re loved forever into fellowship with the Triune God, Love Himself.
Part III: Christianity is Christ: Christian Faith & Life
As we’ve been saying all along in this series on Plain Christianity, Christianity is Christ. Missionary E. Stanley Jones adds to this definition: “Christianity is Christ [and] our response to him.” Our response itself, though, is rooted in Christ’s living in us who are in him. It’s this response to Christ, the Christian’s everyday lifestyle, that’s the focus of today’s lecture: Christian faith and life.
Now the Creator/creature distinction still applies to Christians. It will always apply. We may be maturing in Christ and going from one stage of our pilgrimage to another and, one day, we’ll see Christ face to face.” Nonetheless, we’re still God’s creatures as well as God’s children.
So, by definition, even for us Christians, God is both known to us in Christ and God remains Mystery. As St. Augustine knew, as soon as we think we’ve encompassed God we can be sure it’s not God we’ve encompassed. And life in God the Son is no simpler, really. As Andrew Greeley observes, if you wish to eliminate uncertainty and confusion from your life, there’s “no point in getting mixed up with Jesus of Nazareth.” Doubt, too, as Christians have always experienced, is a vital part of faith. In Paul’s words, we all still “see through a glass darkly.” And though we’re being conformed into the very image of Christ, we are never going to turn the Trinity into a Quadrangle. All this mystery is absolutely necessary if anything we’re understanding about God is really true. Besides, as C. S. Lewis has the joyous intuition to muse: “The best is perhaps what we understand least.” And isn’t that just like the God we know even as little as we do?
Still, God’s gracious revelation – especially his revelation in Christ, the Light of the world – means that we’re not completely in the dark. And on the basis of this gift, God’s fullest revelation in Christ, Christians from the beginning have been using our God-given brains to “think God’s thoughts after him,” as some have said. But if we stray from God’s revelation – especially God’s fullest revelation in Christ – and consequently wander into sheer, self-serving and self-absorbed speculative philosophizing, we fall into spiritual devastation. We must begin with God’s Word – written and enfleshed – and test everything by God’s Word and see where that revelation leads us in doing Christian theology. So: To borrow a paraphrase from the apologetics ministry of Ravi Zacharias: “Let My people think!” That’s our calling: to think it through – through God’s revelation.
The very earliest Christian creed, a conclusion from all the evidence the early Christians had witnessed – especially the resurrection of Jesus – was this: “Jesus is Lord.” How’s that for Plain Christianity? “Jesus is Lord.” How scandalous this must have sounded to first century ears! In the Roman Empire, the whole world really, Caesar was Lord! That was the political reality. In Judaism, Yahweh was Lord! That was the religious reality (or so it was said). But real reality was and is this: “Jesus is Lord.” This little creed was no little matter. It was seen to be subversion itself by both the Roman and Temple establishments. “Jesus is Lord?” Dangerous truth – in the first century and in every century since. “Jesus is Lord.” Is that our everyday creed? Is that the motto of your life and mine, lived out in our everyday lives in New York City? Do we proclaim “Jesus is Lord” in all that we say and do, in all to which we give attention and priority – even when we don’t face a firing squad for doing so? For the true Christian, the bottom line of his or her plainest Christian commitment is this: “Jesus is Lord.” No ands, ifs, or buts about it. “Jesus is Lord.” Period. So then what? We can’t say “Jesus is Lord” and go on with our life as though he’s not!
As the years went on, Christian teaching was more elaborately extrapolated from this basic creed and from the components of God’s revelation in which it was rooted. Christian doctrine was being recited in the form of what’s come to be known as the Apostles’ Creed sometime in the 4th century. Apart from “Jesus is Lord,” it is, more than any other historic creed, the creed of Plain Christianity. That is to say, it represents what has been believed basically and widely by Christians since the days of the apostles, across all cultures and across all the centuries.
Here are the words of the Apostles’ Creed, framed as a Trinitarian statement of belief and rooted in historical realities.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
And born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
And is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
he holy and universal church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.
In January of 1563, a Protestant convocation in Heidelberg approved what has since been known as The Heidelberg Catechism. It’s a most pastoral question-and-answer formulation of the historic Christian faith.
The very first question of The Heidelberg Catechism is this: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer is this: “That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
As is clearly evident in the wording here, Christian faith and life is of a piece. Christian faith cannot be separated from Christian life. Christian faith/living is based in the supernatural activity of God’s grace and is believed and lived out by God’s grace. Christian faith/living rests in the powerful and everlasting love of God in Christ Jesus.
The Christian lifestyle is the lifestyle of self-denial for the sake of others to which Jesus called his followers – whether in first century Galilee and Jerusalem or in 21th century Manhattan. That lifestyle of self-denial was odd and at odds with the values of the first century and it’s just as odd and at odds with values today.
The Christian life is not a part-time thing. Christian life is not a hobby. It’s not simply something we do on Sunday mornings. Christian life is living for Christ “24-7.” And it’s not some self-fulfillment, self-esteem stuff. It is not aimed at our “happiness” as that’s defined in our consumer culture. As Bonhoeffer put it: “When Christ calls a person, he calls that person to come and die.” If you’re not counting on death to self, you’re not counting on a life for Christ. Bonhoeffer did die for Christ – quite literally, at the hands of the Nazis. We’re no less called to die – even though our deaths may not be quite so literal. But die we must. We die to self in our living for Christ. Remember: “Jesus is Lord.” We must die to all the agendas of our self-centered, self-involved lives and surrender everything we have been given – including our very lives – to the sovereignty of Christ. Anything less is not the Christian life. But then, unless we die we’ll never live. The only way to live is to die. The only way to find our life is to loose it.
Now, of course, we don’t die on our own. We don’t die by ourselves. We die in Christ. And it is in Christ, then, that we are made alive – for the welfare of the world and the glory of God. Says Wright, “all that we are and do as Christians is based upon the one-off unique achievement of Jesus. It is because he inaugurated the kingdom that we can live the kingdom. It is because he brought the story of God and Israel, and hence of God and the cosmos, to its designed climax that we can now implement that work today.”
In learning of God’s universal love through His revelation in His written word of truth (the Bible), in His living Word of Truth (Christ Jesus), and in His Holy Spirit of continuing Presence, there must be a loving response in our daily living. If we are “alive in Christ” we cannot continue as dead to Christ’s priorities. We are “dead to self” and “alive in Christ.” That has lifestyle consequences for everything about us. Everything. In the memorable expression of Abraham Kuyper, the Christian who was prime minister of the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century, Christ looks at everything about you and cries: “Mine!” The lifestyle of serious Christians is, simply put, the life of Christ himself, living his life in and through us.
As Christians, we rely on One eternal God who created all else. We trust that God is redeeming a fallen creation. More specifically, we trust that God is renewing His creation through the life, suffering and death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus who is coming back. And we believe that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is indeed Lord, in God’s cosmic reign of self-sacrificing love. If we take all this seriously, how can it not make a difference in our daily living? What else can possibly be more central to our way of thinking and our way of living, to our world-and-life priorities and values?
To be such Christians is what it means to realize that we’re forever loved by our self-sacrificing God. And so, of course, why have any other gods but God? Why then, not love God with all we are and with all we have and in all we do and all we say? And why then, can we not care about the welfare of everyone else – including all enemies – just as we love and care about our own welfare?
Love – who God is – is what we are to be all about in Christ. We’re commanded to seek each other’s welfare and to love each other as Christ loved us – and he, remember, gave his life for us. And we’re commanded to love even enemies, too. Since Jesus said his coming into our lives would bring a sword of division even within the nuclear family, no wonder we’re told to love our enemies. Enemies come with our commitment to Christ.
If such loving is hard for those who know God already loves them enough to die for them, how much harder is such loving for those who don’t know that God loves them enough to die for them? How much harder is such loving for those who think God hates them or for those who think there is no god – who think they’re all alone? That’s why Christian loving is a much different matter than the sentimental or self-seeking love that tries to put others (even God) in debt. Those who don’t know they’re loved make lousy lovers. It is descriptively true that there have been many expressions of the so-called Golden Rule in most “spiritualities” and even in anti-spiritualities. The most notorious atheistic stem-winder of the 19th century, Robert G. Ingersoll, used to say: “give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself.” Even Bob Ingersoll was created in God’s image and had a sense of right and wrong. But non-Christian versions of the so-called Golden Rule, or Silver Rule, have generally not been applied outside one’s own boundaries of self-writ-larger. How could they? As I said, those who don’t know they’re loved make lousy lovers.
In the ancient world and around the world today, wherever paganism thrives and wherever Christianity has not penetrated, the concept of agapic love, Christian “charity,” is scoffed at and taken to be cowardice. What may look like it, tends to be limited to one’s own kind. In the words of Westminster’s dean Wright: “Paganism, at its heart, powerfully reinforced the boundaries of nation, family and tribe, of geography and gender, that crisscrossed the ancient world. It is a striking fact that, apart from within Judaism, we have little or no evidence in the ancient world of what we today call ‘charity;’ there was no sense of obligation to the poor, except to the poor among one’s own kin or among those who might be of political usefulness.” Even in our contemporary world, concern for the welfare of others – apart from the influence of Christianity – is restricted to those who are defined to be among “us” instead of “them.” Largess tends to be extended no farther than “us” writ large. It’s not so with true Christian love, even though some – and sadly in the name of Christianity (and armed with plenty of “proof texts”) – are anything but loving to those they view as disagreeably different.
Wright says that, as Christians, we’re “given such security in the love of the true god that [we’re] able to forgo all human privileges and rights to which [we] might otherwise lay claim.” [Wright] That’s the Christologically-based ethic of Christianity. And it’s well-based – biblically, theologically and psychologically. For unless we’re assured we’re loved, human beings have real difficulty loving even our own. And how much less can human beings love those with whom we don’t identify, and even less, our enemies?
Loving enemies! “Fuggetaboutit!” (as it’s put these days.) Enemies are too useful to those who don’t know they’re loved. When things “go wrong” the fault always lies elsewhere – not in oneself or in one’s own group – but with “the enemy.” This, in individual psychological terms, can be sociopathic. It’s also expressed as “party politics” and even as self-righteous patriotism. No. Unless we’re confident that we’re safe, human beings find it all too tempting to spend our time and energy and our elaborate rationalizations trying to secure our own safety while blaming others, trying to prove we’re all good and they’re are all bad. We refuse even to listen to “them” and to hear “their” grievances against “us.” We’re all too quick to belittle their grievances and to believe only the worst about “them,” suffocating in our self-centered, self-serving self-righteousness. There’s thus little or no inclination for mere altruism let alone the radical love to which we’re all called as followers of Christ.
Sadly, Christians are unlovingly reluctant to forego rights. For example, Paul said he was appalled to hear that Corinthian Christians were suing each other in the secular courts. Paul urged: Why not just be wronged? But we see Christians launching plenty of lawsuits in our own day. And those who say they take the Bible literally seem to be the most litigious. Fundamentalist Tim LaHaye, best-selling author of the Left Behind series, is suing fellow Christians with whom he collaborated on the film. Some of Pat Robertson’s former employees launched a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against him, claiming they’d been excluded from weekly prayer meetings because they’re black! A woman who sued her Pentecostal church for $4 million – claiming injuries in a hard fall when her minister touched her and she fell, “slain in the Spirit” – settled for $80,000. Her lawyer says the woman won’t discuss her case with news media because God told her not to. Selective obedience. But these folks are not all on the Religious Right. Matthew Broderick’s sister, fired as vicar at Grace Church, is suing her former Episcopal bishop, seeking $6.8 million in compensatory damages and unspecified punitive damages, but not her old job. In response to those who remind her that such a lawsuit is unbiblical, she protests: “This is a contract case. What in God’s name does this have to do with doctrine?”
“What in God’s name does it have to do with doctrine?” Everything at the heart of the Christian life! As Wright states: “The church is summoned, as the very stuff of its life, not as an added extra when private spirituality has been sorted out, to incarnate that love, that charity, just as the God it professes to worship had done. … Insisting on one’s rights, even insisting on one’s rights as a Christian, is a sign that something else other than the true God is being worshipped.”
This is why the Christian life is rooted in the cross of Christ – not only for salvation but for sanctification – for our growing into the stature of Christ. For Christians, Christology is a matter of both doctrine and doing.
Wright critiques “the cult of modern Western self-fulfillment [that] has pursued a path of personal wholeness, in which self-denial plays little or no part.” What, Wright asks, might it mean “for Christians zealously to seek not to stand on their rights? The question is so enormous, and in our culture so novel, that it is difficult to answer. But one result would certainly follow. Such action would constitute a powerful challenge to the paganism that is gaining ground in our culture, as it prevailed at Corinth. It would be far more effective than ‘marches for Jesus’; or fulminating sermons, both of which can easily become a cloak for insecurity and pride, which feed on one another within a church that has not fully grasped its own central Christology.” And this is as true about today’s churches on the Left as it is true about today’s churches on the Right. No wonder Paul said he wanted to know nothing among his fellow Christians but the crucified Christ!
A hot-button issue in these post-Christian days is Christian evangelism – the sharing of the Good News of Christ with non-Christians. Proclaiming the Good News that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” is one of the most sacred duties of Christians. But it has never been something that pagans or devotees of rival ideologies have welcomed. Why should they? It’s a radical challenge to that to which they’re radically devoted: their self-sovereignty. This virulent “anti-proselytizing” spirit is especially strong among the cultural elite in academia, the courts, the media. Of course, the “anti-proselytizing” prejudice extends against only Christian “proselytizing” (so called). It’s ironic how much “spiritual” silliness is promoted while Christian evangelism is condemned. But of course. It’s only Christian evangelism that threatens self-sovereignty.
A Christian social critic responds to christophobic prohibitions against Christian evangelism by observing with some satire: “The ancient Israelites should have been more inclusive in regard to idol worship; those who brought the images of Baal into the Temple were exhibiting inter-faith sensitivity. The early Christians should have recognized the spiritual value of Roman paganism; adding emperor worship would have made their faith more tolerant.” [Gene Edward Veith] A little satire is like a little salt. It stings.
That reminds us that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called his followers “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” [Matt 5:13-16] That’s what we Christians are, it’s not simply what we should be, as underscored by the great preacher/theologian Helmut Thielicke, rector of the University of Hamburg. Jesus said that we would salt and light the world. Thielicke, who suffered under the Nazis, laments that too many Christians try, instead, to “sweeten and sugar the bitterness of life with an all too easy conception of a loving God. They soften the harshness of guilt with an appallingly childish romanticism.” Here’s what he says: “Salt bites, and the unadulterated message of the judgment and grace of God has always been a biting thing – so much so that men have revolted against it and even bitten back at it. It has always been easier to get along with the honey-god of natural religion.” He goes on to say that “salt always bites and stings at the points where we … have wounds, where we are vulnerable. We want healing without pain – and besides, we do not even want to be reminded of these sore spots.” So if Christians are the necessary salt in the world, Thielicke wisely observes that it’s “a dubious sign if the world lives too peacefully with the church.”
He also notes that “salt has a preserving power, the power to stop decay [and that] our Western world has become a world of decay and rottenness because that salt is lacking.” He appeals to each of us to be at least the one grain of salt each of us is as a Christian, shaken out to irritate what needs to be irritated and to preserve what needs to be preserved.
But, he admits, “Most Christians are stupid. That is to say, disobedience is always stupidity (in the full sense in which the godless are called fools), though most people think that it is wisdom and prudence that prompts them to disobedience.” So, he says, Christians stupidly remain in the saltcellar, unshaken and useless. They hide their light under a bushel. Useless. Would that we behaved as salt and light. Says Thielicke: “salt and light live and work by sacrificing and giving of themselves and not by trying to ‘preserve’ themselves.” Such is the life that gives itself in order to live. Such is the lifestyle of a true and plain Christian.
The world today is as much in need of the salt and light of Christians and the Good News of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as was the first century world. We now live in a post-Christian world. That is, the hegemony of Western Christendom has come and gone. And, like the early Christians, we live in a world – at least among the cultural elite in academia, the courts and the media – that is hostile to Christianity. Out of both ignorance and intolerance, Christianity is assumed to be either irrational or irrelevant. We live in a pagan world that’s as misinformed on Christianity as was the ancient pagan world in which the first Christians lived as salt and light.
Anti-Christian bigotry these days portrays Christians as some sort of Taliban. Hearing postmodern pagans attack Christianity, one would never know that Christians built the worlds first hospitals and universities, fought against the slave trade and ended slavery, led the movement for racial civil rights, raised the status of women, and spread the ideals of “liberty and justice for all.”
Catholic intellectual Michael Novak commends a recent book, Christianity on Trial, by the editor of The Rocky Mountain News. He says: “Its aim is to restore to Christians some knowledge of their own history, which is unrelievedly distorted in the schools and the media, and manifested in a constant stream of ignorant christophobia from our chattering classes.”
Now we’re not called to wage a battle for our Christian rights. But we are called to “let not [our] good be evil spoken of.” [Rom 14:6] For if pagans today believe lies about Christians, Christianity, or Christ, how can they be expected to listen to the Christian Gospel?
Still, the Gospel of Christ is an offense and a scandal – it always has been a scandal. We shouldn’t expect it not to be. Peter said that Christ is precious to us who trust in him. But, citing the Psalms and prophets and using the very term from which we get our word “scandal,” Peter wrote: to the unbelieving, “the stone which the builders rejected, this has become the keystone and scandal, a stone to stumble over. People stumble over him because they disbelieve the message.” [I Pet 2:7-8] And while Paul, too, granted that the Gospel was a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles,” [I Cor 1:23] he cautioned his fellow Christians against giving any unnecessary offense. “So live,” he said, “that you give no occasion for the stumbling of Jews, gentiles or the church of God.” How was this to be done? “Don’t seek your own advantage, but rather, the advantage of the others – in order that they may be saved.” [I Cor 10:32] Such evangelization is our calling as Christians. It’s one of the ways we seek to love our neighbors.
And finally, a word about heresy, an outdated concept in the urbane assumptions of postmodernist culture – except, of course, for political correctness. But heresy is a risk wherever truth is concerned. Just as ancient Judaism was constantly beset by false prophets, Christianity – throughout 2,000 years – has been beset by false teachers and false teaching both from within [cf. II Peter] and from without [cf. Jude]. Scripture observes that false teachers ensnare people who are not firmly grounded in the Christian faith. [II Pet 2:14] That’s one reason this series on Plain Christianity is so necessary, for – among most churchgoers today – there’s very little firm grounding in the faith.
The main characteristic of all the false teaching has been, as a biblical scholar says, an emphasis on notions of “peace and security in contrast to … judgment.” [Richard J. Bauckham] It’s a “peace” that is no peace and a “security” that is no security. But, of course, as Paul warned Timothy, it “tickles the ears” – and we might add, tickles the egos as well. [II Tim 4:3] Inevitably, this “peace” without judgment leads to immorality rather than to doctrinal error alone. As it’s put by one biblical commentator: “Ironically, the false teachers incur judgment by teaching that there will be no future judgment and thereby leading themselves and others into immorality.” [Bauckham]
Most New Yorkers – whether churchgoers or not – are fairly ignorant about the basics of Christianity and religion. But that doesn’t stop them from assuming they’re qualified to make all sorts of pronouncements about Christianity and religion. That’s because they mistakenly assume it’s all merely a matter of one’s private opinion. Hopefully, you signed up for this series because you know better. You have wanted to find out what Plain Christianity really is. And, like the recipients of the letter to the Hebrews, you need the milk before you can digest the solid food. [Heb 5]
So what have we said?
We’ve said that Christianity is Christ. It can’t be better said. We’ve looked briefly at this Christianity that’s Christ by taking seriously the revelation of God. We’ve acknowledged that without God’s speaking to us in nature, His Son, and the Bible, we’d have to depend on our own concoctions on reality. We looked at Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Messiah, the Christ. Somehow, God is Jesus. He came to earth to show what God is like and to reconcile the sinful world to God. Somehow, he did this in his gracious Self-sacrifice on the cross.
We looked at Christians, the disciples of Christ. Christians are “in Christ” and Christ is “in Christians.” Christians are the first fruits of a worldwide harvest of humanity, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God. And so it’s only natural that we should want to share this Good News with everyone, even though the world hates us, as it hated and hates our Savior and Lord.
We looked at Christian faith and life. Christian faith/life is one thing, not two. It’s both doctrine and doing. And that’s because the fundamental creed of Plain Christianity is this: “Jesus is Lord.” But he’s not a tyrant lord. He’s our elder brother as well as our Savior and God. So Christian doctrine and doing is the Christian lifestyle of love to all – even enemies – for He loves us and them all together. Loved to the uttermost, Christians die to self in order to live as salt and light to the world and for the greater glory of God our Savior.
Recommended Books and Web Sites for Further Inquiry:
(Older books on this list may be ordered through www.abebooks.com.)
G. K. Chesterton. The Everlasting Man. (Dodd, Mead, 1925).
Paul Copan, editor. Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A debate between William Lane Craig & John Dominic Crossan, moderated by William F. Buckley, Jr. (BakerBooks, 1998).
Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli (editors). Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? A debatebetween William Lane Craig & Gerd Ludemann (InterVarsity Press, 2000).
Stanley Hauerwas. After Christianity? How the Church is to behave if freedom, justice, and a Christian nation are bad ideas (Abingdon, 1991).
Luke Timothy Johnson. The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (HarperCollins, 1995).
C. S. Lewis. The Abolition of Man (Oxford University, 1944).
C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1953).
J. B. Phillips, Plain Christianity (Macmillan, 1955).
Dorothy L. Sayers. Creed or Chaos? (Hodder and Stoughton, 1940).
John Stott, Basic Christianity (InterVarsity, 1964).
Lee Strobel. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (HarperCollins Zondervan, 1998).
Lee Strobel. The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (HarperCollins Zondervan, 2000).
Helmut Thielicke. Life Can Begin Again: Sermons on the Sermon on the Mount (Fortress, 1963).
Robert E. Van Voorst. Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Eerdmans, 2000)
Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, editors. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Jesus (HarperCollins Zondervan, 1995).
N. T. Wright. The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (InterVarsity, 1999).
Philip Yancey. The Jesus I Never Knew (Harper Collins Zondervan, 1995).
www.rzim.org Ravi Zacharias International Ministries
www.asa3.org American Scientific Affiliation
www.cyberhymnal.org The Cyber Hymnal