Sunday, February 28, 2010

Finding Jesus

Several years ago while we were working in Israel, I became aware of the Jesus Seminar and its negative approach to the words of Jesus. Some of you probably know that the Jesus Seminar is a group of about 76 scholars who began meeting around 1985 to study the words of Jesus. Using a rather unusual method, they voted on the sayings of Jesus--whether or not they thought he actually said them.

Never one to just ignore things that are destructive to my faith, I began to do a study of the methods and teachings of the Seminar. In their meetings they would pass around a container. The scholars (all, by the way, drawn from liberal universities) would use red, pink, gray, or black beads to indicate whether they believed Jesus actually spoke the words recorded in the Gospels--such as, for example, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." If a given scholar believed Jesus actually said those words, he would put a red bead in the container. If he thought Jesus might have said it, he put in a pink bead, a gray one if he thought it not likely, and a black one if he thought there was no way Jesus could have said those words. In this way they eliminated all but about 18% of the sayings of Jesus. They then published a book called The Five Gospels (they included Thomas), in which they printed the sayings of Jesus in those corresponding colors. There is very little red in it.

There was a whole spate of books that came out in the 80's and 90's, both on the Historical Jesus and the Gospels in general. A few of them were conservative, but most were liberal. As a result of my study--not only of the Jesus Seminar, but of other scholars who wrote extensively on the subject--I put together a course that I taught at least once at Israel College of the Bible in Jerusalem. At first the class was very popular, and students were coming in to visit even if they did not belong in that particular class. Later on the students began to realize the true implications of the teachings of these scholars, and I, as teacher, felt that I was not giving them enough ammunition to refute what were basically anti-Christian teachings. At that time the class began to lose some of its popularity, and at the end of fifteen weeks I felt that we finished on a less-than-triumphant note.

Of all the books I acquired and read, there was one, by Catholic scholar Luke Johnson, that went somewhat against the drift of scholarly works on the Historical Jesus. Most of them, even conservative ones, seemed to proceed on the assumption that yes, we should find out as much as we can about the actual historical Jesus who trod the dusty paths of Judea so long ago, for after all, our faith depends on it. The book by Johnson, however, was entitled The Real Jesus, and the subtitle was The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels. I remember thinking at the time that this author had an interesting approach, and it might even be that he was right.

In retrospect, I definitely think he was right, and I now wish I had never taught that course. It is my nature to be interested in scholarly things, though I have never considered myself a true scholar (I have an M.A. degree from Jerusalem University College). I was keenly interested in the methods and books of the scholars, even though I vehemently disagreed with them. I only pray that I didn't damage the faith of any student as we went over some of those teachings in class.

Here is the bottom line. If the cross was the end of the life of Jesus, then we would need to find out every little bit of information we could about this man who was nothing more than a historical personage. Yes, since, on that view, he's dead and gone, we would need to study all of the gospels, even the apocryphal and Gnostic ones, including Thomas, Mary, Philip, and so forth, and we should also study the few "agrapha" in existence (these are words Jesus may have spoken but did not get into the four Gospels, such as "it is more blessed to give than to receive" which we find in Acts 20:35). Yes, we would want every bit of information, no matter how small, we could get.

But then, if he's dead and gone, what would be the point of all this study? And what does it gain Jesus Seminar scholars, who do not believe he is the Son of God or that he has the power to be any kind of savior? (Robert Funk, in his book Honest to Jesus, said this Jesus was not "qualified" to be his savior!)

Here is why the study of the Historical Jesus may not only be futile (because we already have most of the reliable knowledge in the Four Gospels), but misguided and unnecessary, as Luke Johnson points out. Briefly, Jesus is alive. He continues to live, and he wants to embrace, save, and fellowship with each one of us today. He is not in history. He once was, but he is not now. Today, he lives on as the risen Savior, and to look for him in history is to look in the wrong place.

Why do you seek the living among the dead? (Luke 24:5). Oh, how good it would have been to ask this question of Robert Funk, who was the founder of the Jesus Seminar, before he died. Maybe someone did. Hopefully someone did. How appropriate it would be to ask this question of John Dominic Crossan, another of the leaders of the Jesus Semianr, who as far as I know is still around. Marcus Borg is another scholar who writes on the historical Jesus. Ironically, these men can't leave him alone. They are irresistibly drawn to him, and yet they do not, according to their own words, believe that he lives today and can save them if they turn to him in faith. So they continue to sift the dust of history, looking for...what?

Where do we find Jesus? In the Gospels we can read a record of his days on earth. But that is not where we really find him. We find him today anywhere we are, if we really want to know him and fellowship with him. He's looking for us. After all, it's our door he's knocking on, asking to come in. Of course we can't see him with our physical eyes. But we know that reality is not limited to what can be seen.

Today he is just as real as he was then. Once in a while a person is granted a marvelous supernatural vision of him (sometimes in a near-death experience). Though I don't discredit this type of thing (nor do I accept all of them), nothing depends on them. If they are true, and I believe some of them are, they are merely icing on the cake. They are corroborations of what we already know and believe to be true, due to the reliable testimony of the first-hand witnesses in the New Testament.

We know, then, that he is real. We find him here, today, among us. He waits for us to truly believe it, and to open the door to fellowshp with him--Who was, Who is, and Who is to come.

Monday, November 9, 2009

How Secure Is Our Salvation?

As I said in a previous article, it seems to me many of us argue for Scriptural positions in such a way that it constitutes shooting ourselves in the foot. One of the items of doctrine that seems to cause sparks and sometimes even explosions is the question of whether or not a Christian is eternally secure. In other words, once we are saved and in Christ, can we lose our salvation? I have been all around this doctrine. I have looked at it from almost every angle, and still have not reached a hard and fast decision on it.

Let me just dance around it a little bit in this short blog, without being overly critical (hopefully) of any one. I myself probably stand somewhere between the two extremes of doctrine, which might be stated this way: (a) “You’d better watch out because you might lose your salvation”; (b) “Don’t worry; you can’t lose your salvation.”

Is it possible to stand between these two positions? Yes, it is, as I hope to show.

It is surprising to see how many well-known Christian theologians and teachers accept the once-saved-always saved position, and have even written books on the subject. Several come immediately to mind. John R. Rice (deceased), Merrill F. Unger (also deceased), Charles Stanley, John MacArthur, Charles Swindoll, R.T. Kendall, Robert Stein, and many others are in this category.

I do know that this teaching is grossly misunderstood in the churches that lean toward an Arminian position. (It is probably not correct to lay the doctrine of insecure salvation at the doorstep of Jacob Arminius, because, even though Arminianism is generally thought to be the mirror opposite of Calvinism, this is not quite true. For one thing, Arminius himself apparently never denied eternal security—though his followers did.)

Most opponents of eternal security believe the doctrine teaches that, after becoming a Christian, a person can do anything he wants to, or is inclined to, and still be saved. The doctrine does not mean that, and has never meant that. A few of its adherents may abuse it by living a loose life while expecting to go to heaven. But the true doctrine of eternal security teaches that, though one may now and then fall into sin, overall he or she will strive to live a life that is pleasing to the Lord. In other words, an immoral or impure life raises strong doubts as to whether the person in question was ever really saved. (I realize I am being simplistic in this article. For example, the "true doctrine" of eternal security is quite a complex matter. But as an overview, perhaps it is acceptable to state it as I have.)

I have gone over some of the Scriptures again—those on both sides of the argument. It appears that there are passages to back up both a secure and an insecure salvation. There may be (and I stress may be) about an equal number of passages to support both sides of the issue. I was recently discussing it with a friend of mine, and we just wound up trading passages back and forth. I would give him a passage on my side, and he would toss one back to support his side. We got precisely nowhere.

One thing, however, always puzzles me. If there are, say, ten passages that seem to teach that one can lose his or her salvation, and ten that seem to teach that one cannot lose it, which would you choose? It seems to me that a person who has any consciousness of sin in his life (and surely we all do!) would choose the ten that teach that he or she cannot lose their salvation. It is shooting oneself in the foot to argue strenuously against secure salvation, unless one is sure he is so holy that he’s never going to be in any danger of losing his own salvation.

Don’t get me wrong. I admire those people who sincerely believe that they are defending Scripture, even when the drift of their teaching works to their own detriment. But I wonder if sometimes the proponents of an insecure salvation are really saying something like this: “I have worked hard for my salvation. I have sweated and labored, prayed, denied myself, buffeted my body, worked for the Lord, and lived a pure life. Don’t think you are going to get into heaven by indulging the flesh, enjoying life, and generally doing nothing for the Lord!”

Robert Shank was a Baptist who, supposedly, once believed in eternal security. He then turned against this doctrine and wrote the book, Life in the Son, to try to prove that salvation is not secure, that one may lose his or her salvation. What was his motive in writing such a book, other than the fact that he got a lot of attention for it? I don’t really know what his motive was, but did it ever occur to him that he was, possibly, cutting the ground out from under his own salvation? Why is it that C.S. Lewis’ dictum about hell is so widely ignored: “Hell is not about the other person; it’s about you.”

Another interesting quote (but I don’t know who said it) is this one: If we could lose our salvation, most of us would. This thought, or this possibility, is also pretty much ignored by the insecure salvation camp. We need to give more attention to those who are trying to warn against the consequences of teaching an insecure salvation. Conversely, I believe those who teach that a person may make it to heaven while in a state of deliberate sin and turning against the Lord, is likewise guilty of teaching error.

While, at this point, I am not in the once-saved-always-saved camp, I do tend toward a position that would maintain that the only way one can lose his salvation is to deliberately turn away from the Lord, and spurn the faith he once professed. Otherwise he’s not going to lose it, and he is definitely not going to lose it as easily as some seem to think. I just don’t understand why some people can scold the secure-salvation people so glibly, while all the time ignoring the possibility that they themselves may not have done enough to get them to heaven!

Here is something to ponder: if you are not in by being good, how can you be out by being bad?

I think that the insecure-salvation teachers may be guilty of three errors regarding the doctrine they are teaching.

1.They have an inadequate view of sin. Some say “real Christians don’t sin.” True, most Christians avoid the more serious sins, such as those listed in the Ten Commandments. But even if we manage to do nothing overtly that would displease God (which few of us manage to do), sins of omission dog our steps constantly. C. Gordon Olson says, “Even if we set aside sins of commission for a moment and consider sins of omission, it becomes obvious that all Christians continuously sin” (Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism, p. 314). James says, “Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (3:17). At the very least, most Christians are guilty of failing to carry out the great commission, or even to be much interested in it.

Why is it, then, that only sensitive believers are so acutely aware of their sin? Do we not understand that to be aware of the dirt in our lives is the very sign of the presence of God? Thus to be conscious of sin is not a bad thing.

2. Secondly, many Christians are overconfident of their ability to live a pure life. What I hear from the Arminian camp is that, though Christ started the salvation process by dying on the cross for us, it is now up to us to keep ourselves saved. We supposedly do that by living a sinless life. But of course we don’t, and can’t, do that. As noted earlier, many who criticize the secure-salvation position, don’t seem to realize that they are placing themselves on shaky ground.

This is where the difference between the tough-minded and tender-minded comes in. The tough-minded tend to be over optimistic about their standing with God. They are often unaware of the sins of thought, the sins of pride, anger, jealousy, and many other of the “respectable” sins that nevertheless greatly displease God. They might think they are living a pure life. But Isaiah says that all our “righteousness” is as filthy rags before God (64:6).

3.Third, proponents of an insecure salvation are guilty of ignoring a number of plain Scriptures. Of course I can’t begin to enumerate all of those passages here, but there are four or five of them that plainly teach eternal security, the most obvious one, of course being John 10:27-29. The heart of this passage is simply: “my sheep shall never perish.” Non-Calvinistic churches have to ignore this passage, because they have no adequate interpretation of it. It is a thorn in the side of an insecure theology.

There are plenty of others, such as Ephesians 1:4-6. Insecure salvation people have to leave this verse alone, or mutilate its interpretation, since it teaches that present believers were “chosen” before the foundation of the world and “predestined” to be adopted as God’s sons. But since many of us don’t believe God would “choose” some and not choose others, we have to say that election is not in the Bible. Personally, I believe election is based on foreknowledge (Rom. 8:29; 1 Peter 1:2); thus it is not unconditional election. If someone wants to say, “Oh, then that’s not really election,” then that’s all right with me.

There are a number of other passages that are just as clear as the above.

Finally, it should be noted that God’s grace cannot really be understood or appreciated as long as we are on shaky ground with our salvation. How does an insecure salvation proponent know that he’s going to make it? I even heard some men say one time that they couldn’t know if they were going to heaven until they died. Really? What a travesty of the faith! But those who teach that sin, or at least too much sin, will cause us to lose our salvation never really know whether they themselves are not in that very situation. How does anyone know for sure he or she has not crossed the line?

If we don’t know that God has saved us eternally, then we have to be fearful that he may someday disown us. If God’s love isn’t forever, then it’s not even as good as that of an earthly father. Are we uneasy around our earthly fathers because we fear that we may say or do something that will cause him to disown us? Of course not! But this is the way we must behave around God as long as we don’t know, or believe, that we are his forever. As long as we think that there may be some sin that will cause God to “throw us away,” so to speak, then we cannot enjoy that “perfect love” or that “perfect peace” that only Jesus can give.

If we are confident that we are not going to sin such a disastrous sin, then either (1) we are helping our own salvation along by being good, which can only take us so far, or (2) we must admit that it is, at base, God who is keeping us. In other words, it is the persevering work of the Holy Spirit in our lives that is responsible for getting us safely home. But if that is so, then we are pretty close to eternal security.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Something I Have Noticed

It has been said there are two things one should never tamper with: a man’s religion, and his politics. He will get upset in either case. I know this is true, and it’s true of myself as well. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether we are right or wrong; we just don’t want anybody trying to foist a different way of thinking on us.

What does puzzle me a little bit, though, is why people will sometimes fight for a certain view of Scripture even when it is not in their favor to do so. Though I don’t remember the particular theological issue that was in question, a certain preacher once said of his own denomination, “Yes, they’d rather give up Jesus than change their thinking on…” (whatever the issue was). Unfortunately, that could be true of many of us. Of course we’ve all heard the old adage: a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

In fact, sometimes people are so touchy about their pet doctrines that they will get upset if they even think you are challenging it. If someone has written something that seems to question their own views on a certain issue, they get upset before they even know for sure what the writer is saying.

For example, I once wrote a short article in which I was raising some questions about the traditional doctrine of hell. In actuality what I was doing was just “thinking out loud,” as the saying goes. I had not formed a hard and fast opinion on the view I was suggesting. I suggested that hell might not be “eternal” in the way that we have traditionally viewed it. I have since concluded that it is definitely eternal, but again, it might not be exactly the kind of place we usually think it is. One church, though, with no room in their minds for any kind of tampering with the flesh-roasting-in-the-flames view of hell, actually cut off my support because I “don’t believe in hell”—so they said. I guess they had never read C.S. Lewis, who also would question the literal “roasting” view.

The Bible was written by people with a Semitic mind. The famous theologian Karl Barth suggested that we cannot hope to understand the Bible unless we, to some extent, develop a Semitic way of thinking. I believe this is true. And yet we Westerners, with Aristotelian logic and other non-Semitic elements in our mentality, will sometimes become adamant—and even belligerent—about a doctrine we believe we understand better than anyone else.

I didn’t really set out here to write an essay on hell; I merely wanted to use the doctrine of “hell” as an example of doctrines that people are very touchy about, even though it is a doctrine that definitely does not work in favor of any of us. The reason people can be so glib—but also touchy—about hell is that they are pretty sure they are not going there. And yet C.S. Lewis cautioned: “Hell is not about the other man; it’s about you.” At the same time, he suggested such "heretical" ideas as the idea that, to some extent, it is not God, but we ourselves who put ourselves in hell. He also suggested that hell is locked from the inside, not the outside, implying that if the inhabitants of hell really wanted to get out, they could. He also noted that as we go on life’s journey, if we are not allowing ourselves to be transformed by Christ into better men and women, we will eventually deteriorate to the place where it is only a shell (of our former selves) that is cast into hell.

So maybe none of us has the last word on hell? Maybe it deserves some more thought?

But I can see and hear it already: someone is shaking his or her head. “Another good man has gone over to liberalism. The next thing you know he’ll be questioning heaven, and then after that God Himself.”

I don’t think so, friends.

Another thing people are touchy about is the idea of “works” as a basis for salvation. Again, as I said in a previous blog, there are Christian groups, including the Roman Catholic, who believe that we are saved partly on the basis of our good works. This despite the fact that Paul says clearly that our salvation is of grace, through faith, and that it is not of works (Ephesians 2:9). The whole essay in Romans about how and why the Jewish people failed to obtain the righteousness of God centers around the fact that they sought to accomplish it through works, rather than through faith (cf. Romans 10, whole chapter).

Yet many people want to work for their salvation. They get all hot and bothered if they hear you saying you don’t need to “work” for Jesus. (They don’t wait to hear the rest of the argument—that if you are truly saved, you will want to work for Jesus, and no one will have to coax you to do so!)

We can’t obtain salvation through works, simply because, as Isaiah makes clear, all of our good works are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Furthermore, it is a slur on the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ if we say that we need to add works to our faith in Him in order to be saved. Yes, good works are important, but, again, they are a result of salvation, not a condition for it!

I guess the whole point of this short blog is to urge Christians to think. Think, think, and re-think. I know it’s uncomfortable to re-think our theology. “You mean I’ve been wrong all these years? Oh, no…” But I’m not accusing anyone of being wrong in these essays. I merely want to suggest that there might be another way of looking at the subject. (They might also tell me I need to think, think, and re-think. Actually that's what I'm trying to do.)

I get uncomfortable too when I perceive that something might be different from the way I traditionally thought. For example, I always thought Jesus was meek and mild and always loving. In fact, my sensitive personality requires that Jesus be mild. But guess what. When I went to Israel I discovered that sometimes Jesus acts rather—well, Israeli in his behavior toward others.

But that’s another subject. He’s still loving, and best of all He still loves me—and you. With that confidence we can be at peace...while we are thinking out some of the issues.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Understanding Faith and Salvation

I have come to the conclusion that there is a widespread misunderstanding among Christians about the nature of faith, and the basis of salvation. Most Christians agree that we are not saved by works, although my understanding is that the Roman Catholic Church teaches salvation by faith and works. The main emphasis of the Protestant Reformation was that salvation is by sola fide, faith alone. In opposition to that, in 1547 the Council of Trent stated that “justification does not take place by faith alone without hope, love, and good works…”

On this issue, the Church of Christ has been seen as closer to the Catholic position than the Protestant (though most Church of Christ people would react in horror if someone pointed that out!) That is partly because of the mistaken notion that baptism is a “work.” In actuality baptism is not something one does; it is something one submits to, and is usually administered by a pastor, or other Christian brother. Except for Judaism, you don’t baptize yourself. Thus it is not a “work.”

If one says that works are necessary to salvation, the counter question arises: “How much works?” And if works are necessary, “can one ever be sure he has done enough?” And if one insists that works are essential, is this not a clear contradiction of Ephesians 2:9 which says: “It is by grace that you are saved, through faith—and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast…” I believe most Church of Christ people, if pinned down on the subject, would agree that salvation cannot in any sense be by works. It is by the grace of God, flowing from His love, that we are saved. At least, that is my position (and I am a member of the Church of Christ).

So, aside from the Catholic Church, most Christians would agree that we are saved by faith. But exactly what part does faith play in this process? Here I believe there is a serious misunderstanding among many believers. I myself have been a victim of this misunderstanding.

Many people see faith as something that merits salvation. We agree that good works will not buy salvation. It is by faith. But we still want to do something for our salvation. So we substitute faith for works. Works will not merit salvation, but faith will. So we think. Many Christians see faith as something that gains us salvation because it is a laudable thing that we have done in believing and God, being pleased, gives us salvation on that basis.

But this is not true. Salvation is by grace, and grace alone. Salvation is something God bestows on us when we are the least deserving. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). It is a gift! Purely and simply a gift. There is nothing we are even able to do to gain this gift. Otherwise it would not be a gift; it would be payment for services rendered. For good works. Or for good faith.

Salvation is not based on works.

Salvation is not based on faith.

Salvation is based on grace. It is apprehended through faith, and it produces good works. Let me say that again: we receive it through faith, and it results in works.

Let’s say you want to give me a gift of one thousand dollars. Further, you say this gift will be waiting for me at the post office. Now what work would I have to do to get this gift? Nothing. If there was some good deed I had to do to get your “gift,” it would not be a gift. It would at least partially be a payment. But if it is a gift, the only thing I would need to do (using the word “do” in a slightly different sense now) would be to believe what you said enough to go to the post office to pick up the check.

Since this is a gift, my belief in your promise does not merit the gift. It is merely the means by which I accept it, or the means by which I receive it. If you say, “Please receive this gift,” and I turn around and walk away, apparently I do not trust you to do something good for me. But if, when you say, “Here is a gift,” I say “thank you,” and reach out and take it, then I show my trust in you. I did nothing to get it. I merely believed you when you said, “here is a gift,” and I took it.

I believe that is the role of faith in salvation. Salvation itself is based on grace, and grace is extended to us for one reason alone—because God loves us.

I also believe this takes the pain out of faith. Do I believe enough? What about my doubts? What if I stop believing for a time? I just don’t think my faith is strong enough. These are some of the questions that many of us wrestle with.

But here are some other questions to consider. Do we need God’s salvation? Do we want it? Do we believe enough to reach out and accept it? Probably most of us would say, “Yes.” If so, then we have it. Remember, it is a gift.

Oh, how we hate to accept His gift without adding this and that to it. Oh, how we love to make difficult something that is inherently easy. How we spurn his grace by wanting to do something to get Him to love us and extend his mercy to us. We strive, we sweat, we work, we hope, we doubt, we despair… Will we ever make it?

It’s a gift. Relax and receive the gift! Again, if we are grateful for his gift, then our good works will flow from that gratitude and love.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Love Is All There Is

A few years ago a man by the name of Leo Buscaglia taught a popular university class at USC called "Love 1A." While he was teaching, he was profoundly affected by the suicide of one of his prize students. She was a young girl who had sat there every day a few rows back from the front, smiling and nodding, encouraging him at a time when he felt rather shaky and uncertain of his lectures. Then one day she was gone, and the next and the next. He later found out she had ended her life. It shook him to the core of his soul.

He realized that, while the young lady was cheerful on the outside--even encouraging him--on the inside she was hurting. Through his teaching and his books (for example, Living Loving and Learning), he went on to try to emphasize the extreme importance of loving and caring in human relations.

There is nothing on earth that has been more talked about, yet less really practiced, than love. When I say "love," I don't mean sexual attraction. I mean the act of caring deeply about another person, as God cares for us. There is nothing that lifts our daily load, cheers our spirits, and lightens our way like true love. Yet on a daily basis it seems hard to get, and even harder to give.

We are all needy. We are thirsty, craving love like a dry land craves water. None of us get enough of it. I have noticed in my own life how a kind word, a smile, a cheerful greeting can lift my spirits in an amazing way. Recently, worried about a problem, I called a certain organization for prayer. The lady on the other end said her name was Lydia, and that she would be glad to pray for me. She was so kind, and her prayer lifted my spirits so much, I almost felt like I was talking to Jesus. I'll probably never meet her, but her kind words on the phone did me a world of good.

Recently my older daughter, who lives in Vancouver, told about an experience in which her husband contracted a staph infection while on a trip and they had to visit a clinic in another part of Canada. She said the nurses and other attendants at the clinic were almost unbelievably kind. Listening to her describe their experience, I remarked that if all nurses and doctors were like that, almost everyone would get well. Not everyone would, of course; still, there is something to that. There is strong healing power in love and kindness.

Some people complain about this miserable planet on which we live. But I have come to the conclusion that most of the misery in the world is caused by man's inhumanity to man. Yes, we bring on most of our own misery; we bring it on by our selfishness and lack of concern for others. In other words, our lack of love. And I'm one of the guilty. So often we fail to love. And we fail to love most likely because we didn't get love when we needed it most.

This earth would be a veritable paradise if we just loved each other and treated each other accordingly. The source of love is God. So how do we get more love? The answer is obvious.

A relative of mine once wrote something about love, and at the end of his little essay, or poem, he made the startling statement: "Love is all there is." At first I thought he was wrong. There are plenty of nice things in the world besides love, I thought. But are there really? The Apostle Paul said, "The greatest of these is love..."

There are, of course, many things in the world. But I have concluded that, from the standpoint of value, my relative was absolutely right: love is so important, so wonderful, so joyful, so transforming, so healing, that we could say with very little exaggeration: love is all there is.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Theology and Personality

Theology and Personality

It is interesting to note how much one's personality affects one's theology. The American philosopher, William James, once wrote about two kinds of personalities, or two kinds of mentalities: the tough-minded and the tender-minded. The tender-minded believer tends to emphasize the comforting verses of the Bible, concentrating on those passages that emphasize the grace of God and the work of the Savior in doing everything necessary for our salvation. He or she may emphasize faith. The tough-minded may be a little less interested in those verses, and may, like the Book of James, tend to concentrate on works as a sign of the faith that is in one's heart.

The tender minded may also tend to feel their inherent sinfulness and the difficulty of living a pure Christian life, whereas the tough-minded might feel that it's not hard to live the Christian life if you just put out a little effort. In history, that difference was seen when Pelagius, from England, debated Augustine (though indirectly) in the 5th century. For Augustine, it was hard, next to impossible, to live the kind of life that God demanded, whereas Pelagius maintained that, with a little effort, one could live an almost--if not completely--sinless life.

I saw this difference in my Seminary days, when in a certain class a student (I believe he had an Indian background) argued, like Augustine, that it was very difficult to avoid sin. The teacher, who was obviously one of the tough-minded, argued that it wasn't all that hard. The student used words like "can't"---we can't really avoid sin. The teacher used the word "don't"---we just don't avoid sin, whereas in reality we can. Listening to this argument, I could clearly see the different personalities of the student and the teacher.

Personally, I am more like that student than the teacher, though I wouldn't use the word "can't" in that argument. I have always emphasized the grace and mercy of God, because I know I need a truckload of mercy if I am going to make it to heaven. If I err, it is probably in the direction of over-emphasizing God's mercy and attempting sometimes to tone down the harsh verses, though I never intend to deny their true meaning. The tough-minded, on the other hand, will seek to remind people of the justice of God, of the demands he makes, and of the reality of hell fire.

I feel like David Wilkerson, who, once when he felt condemned for something, said to God, "Lord, if your love can't save me, your anger never will!" (I think this was in his book, I'm Not Mad at God.)

Either God loves us, or he doesn't. If he loves us, he will love us forever. Paul said "[Nothing]...can ever separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39). A love that is here today and gone tomorrow, isn't even as good as human love. I'm going to say this, because I sincerely believe it: If God doesn't love us deeply, and eternally, there is no such thing as love. Because even the greatest human love is shallow and fickle, and easily evaporates.

God's love is the only thing that will save me, so I will spend the rest of my life extolling his love, and recommending it to others. I grew up in a rather strict home where my Dad, though he was a good father, had a kind of unemotional personality. I can't ever remember my Dad telling me in so many words that he loved me. Is it any wonder, then, that I will grasp at those verses that emphasize the fatherly love of God?

Someone might say, "But Lonnie, what about the blood of Jesus? Isn't that what saves us?" Of course it is. But he shed his blood because he loved us. "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

So, that's me, and that's my personality. And this personality of mine will probably always color my theology, although I try to be faithful to the true meaning of the Scriptures. From time to time, I will want to say a few things about love and mercy, so don't be surprised if some of my blogs are about such subjects. Forgive me if I go overboard. But if I err, I will always err in the direction of mercy.

Again, love is the only thing that will save me. And by the way, it's the only that will save you too. Remember Paul's words, "...who loved me, and gave himself for me."

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Our Faithfulness or His?

I have never been confident in my ability to keep myself in a state of grace. Some Christians seem quite confident of their power to live a good life and keep themselves in a condition of salvation. So it seems that, in the end, their salvation will be due to two things: (1) what Christ did for them and (2) what they did for themselves. I have never understood this mentality.

We are like sheep. Everyone knows that sheep are stupid, and if left to themselves will get themselves lost or killed, maybe both. They are entirely dependent on the skill, devotion, and faithfulness of the shepherd. They are not wild stallions who gallop over the plains, finding their own food, fighting off predators, and generally fending for themselves. If they have to take care of themselves, sheep will die.

The Apostle Paul knew this. When he said (Galatians 2:20), "...the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me," most Bibles translate as it is translated here. However, the word translated "faith" in Greek is pistis, which can, and often does, mean "faithfulness." Furthermore, the grammatical structure of "Son of God" is genitive, rather than dative. So it is "faith of" or "faithfulness of" the Son of God, rather than faith in.

Paul was not saying he was keeping himself in a state of grace by his own faith, or faithfulness. Rather he was living, and surviving spiritually, by the faithfulness of Christ Himself.

We put too much burden on our flimsy faith, which even in the best of times isn't very strong. But now look at the verse again: "...the life I now live, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

Jesus is the one who does what needs to be done for our salvation. Remember, it's a completed work. All we need to do is to love him, thank him, and trust in his faithfulness. Service will come naturally once we know that we are secure in Him. "For Christ's love compels us [to serve him]..." (2 Cor. 5:14).