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).