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Redeemer Church

Redeemer Church
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Jesus is the Way, the Gate, and the Shepherd

Jesus is pretty popular today. I mean, if you were to ask a dozen people how they felt about Jesus, I doubt one of them would have a bad thing to say (to your face, at least). The thing about this popularity is, I don't think it's the real Jesus that's the popular one. I think there's a new postmodern pseudo-Jesus, a quasi-Jesus who's just a good teacher and proponent of ideals that the postmodernist strives for.

Decidedly less popular today is the idea that salvation is exclusive, that it is solely through Christ that we can come to God. This seems to be the climate that Rob Bell is reacting to in Velvet Elvis:

As a Christian, I am simply trying to orient myself around living a particular kind of way, the kind of way that Jesus taught is possible. And I think that the way of Jesus is the best possible way to live . . . Jesus at one point claimed to be "the way, the truth, and the life". Jesus was not making claims about one religion being better than all other religions. That completely misses the point, the depth, and the truth. Rather, he was telling those who were following him that his way is the way to the depth of reality.
Ah, how diplomatic. Just a little equivocal. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how you feel about Jesus—he was not this ambiguous. In fact, Jesus concluded his proclamation of being the Way/Truth/Life by saying "no one comes to the Father but through me". It's strange that Jesus says the way is through him, rather than with him, or following behind him. It's almost as if Jesus considered himself as more than just a life-model, more than just an ideal to be pursued.

And because Jesus was so unambiguous, he was clear about what he did consider himself to be. The very same author who recorded Jesus saying he was "the way" also recorded another proclamation Jesus made about himself. In John 10, Jesus says he is the shepherd, and "he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice". Now this certainly sounds more like it! A Jesus we can listen to and follow. This sounds like the life-model/ideal that we're all comfortable with.

Unfortunately, his hearers "did not understand what he was telling them", so he had to expound what he meant—and ruined our paradigm in the process. Jesus said, "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved". There's that word again: through. So Jesus is not simply the model for a Christian life, he is the means into a Christian life. And how is this done? Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep". And in plain language in the following chapter Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies".

So Jesus is the way to be walked, the gate to be passed through, and the shepherd who guards the way and opens the gate. If you're anything like me, this seems really small-minded, really narrow. Which should be a clue that we're on to something: "small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it".

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Stem-Cell Research and Its Slippery Slope

Earlier this week, President Obama lifted the ban on federal funding of stem-cell research using destroyed human embryos. Already science has its eyes on a longer leash. Oxford University stem cell expert Professor Sir Richard Gardner has proposed that destroyed human fetuses from abortions be used for organ transplants, stating that "if they are going to be terminated, it is a shame to waste their organs". An article from Slate online draws out the connection like this:

Two arguments have persuaded the United States to fund stem-cell research using destroyed embryos. One is that the research will save lives. The other is that the embryos, left over from fertility treatments, will otherwise be wasted. Both arguments are now being applied to fetuses.

We now are seeing a very real supply-and-demand scenario surrounding abortions. Five years ago, this sort of scenario was being called a "slippery slope" argument, an argument that was far-fetched and ridiculous and did not necessarily follow from stem-cell research and the abortion industry in our country. And yet here we are today, staring this horror in the face.

If these fetuses are unwanted and will be wasted anyway, why not use them for scientific research and humanistic purposes? If these are sub-human beings anyway, what is keeping us from using them any way we want to make us healthier and happier and furthering the human race? Are you hearing what I'm saying? Are you making the connection? We have an American holocaust on our hands. We are no longer killing them just because they're unwanted. We are killing them because science can use them for our benefit. God save us.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Judge not . . .

"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye' when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." Matthew 7:1-5

Matthew 7:1 is perhaps one of the best known and oft used (and misused) Bible verses to end a conversation about spiritual things and objective truth (by both Christian and non-Christian alike). It's particularly popular in situations where morality is the topic. However, one of my favorite podcasters, Gregory Koukl, deals with this passage at length in his latest book, Tactics.

A closer look at the facts of the context shows that Jesus did not condemn all judgements, only hypocritical ones—arrogant condemnations characterized by disdain and condescension . . . In fact, even in this passage Jesus actually encourages a different sort of judgment once the hypocrisy has been dealt with . . . There are two other kinds of judging that are commanded in Scripture. Judgments that are judicial in nature are good when done by the proper authorities. Judges judge. They pass sentence. That's their job. Church discipline is of this sort . . . Judgments that are assessments—appraisals of right or wrong, wise or foolish, accurate or inaccurate, rational or irrational—are also commanded . . . A judicial action, a factual assessment, a hypocritical arrogance—all are judgments. Only the third is disqualified by Jesus. The first two are actually virtues in their proper settings and therefore commanded by Scripture.

This very topic came up recently in my community group, and on our drive home my wife and I discussed how a Christian should handle such situations surrounding morality. The following is my formula that grew out of that conversation. Note: I am using the word "judgment", but just as Greg did, you could substitute "assessment" or "appraisal" if the j-word makes you uncomfortable. And please reserve your protests and push-back until you read the last step.

Make a judgment on the sin. Is this a blatant sin according to the Bible? Or is this a gray area that you may be wrongly imposing on others? Was it a public sin? Who was affected by it? Who was involved in it?

Make a judgment on the person. Is this person a Christian? This is perhaps the most important question we can ask before we respond in any situation. 1 Corinthians tells us we are not called to judge the world. Are they old enough to understand what they're doing? Are they a member of a church?

Make a judgment on the situation. What is your relationship to this person? Spouse? Parent? Friend? Co-worker? Stranger? Your response must be different given your relationship. Are they a member of your church? If not, what is the climate of their spiritual community (church or other)?

Respond in love. I considered making this final step "Love them." but I think too many people are already inclined to not do anything. I believe love requires action (and more often than not, words) when sin is involved. Most people understand this when it comes to our children; we instruct and correct. However, I believe love would dictate doing or saying something in most relationships when confronted with a damaging sin (and really, is there any other kind?). Granted we do not have the same authority that we do in a parent-child relationship, but if your relationship is close enough, you have "earned" some authority to speak love and correction into their lives.
I know there are other questions I did not think of that may be applicable, and I know some of you may have some push-back. So I would love some responses to this, and this will be a working post.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Will the real believers please stand up, please stand up . . .

The USA Today has recently reported that "the percentage of people who call themselves some type of Christian has dropped more than 11% in a generation". The latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) reflects dramatics shifts in America's religious landscape in the last 18 years. In fact, the only religious group that made significant gains in the last 18 years was (ironically) those who answered "no religion", up from 8% to 15%.

However, I am not panicking yet. My suspicion is that it is largely due to the growing popularity and mainstream acceptability of atheism. It is no longer expected of every American to claim the religion of their country (how long has it been since this was really a Christian nation anyway?). Religion has become so personalized, it is no longer taboo to have no religion or even no thoughts at all on spiritual things. Many people who a couple decades ago would have answered with their parents' religion (even if they haven't been to church since they were a kid) now feel more comfortable in answering honestly (atheist, agnostic, no religion, don't know).

My point is this: the drop in numbers in the Christian denominations and rise in "no religion" numbers may be largely due to a thinning in numbers of the nominal Christians (Christians in name only, not in practice). Those who called themselves Christian only because of their parents, or their country, or a childhood baptism, or a yearly visit to church on Easter or Christmas are finally comfortable confessing the true state of their beliefs. This is actually an improvement since, in my experience, nothing has been harder to overcome in my witness than the nominal Christians who live like the world.

While the numbers of Christians may be declining in the polls, my hope is that the remaining numbers reflect more accurately those who are sincere in faith and practicing in belief. Much like the Christians of Asia and South America, when Christianity is not the expected social norm (or even an unwelcome element), nominal Christianity seems to be weeded out and passionate faith seems to thrive. As a result, this may help in our evangelistic efforts if those claiming Christianity are more Christ-like and those rejecting Christianity are more honest about it.

Is Christianity really losing ground, or are the poll numbers finally beginning to reflect what has been going on in American hearts for generations? It seems to me that the people who have been living their entire lives like atheists finally feel comfortable enough in our current social climate to own up to it.

"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us." - 1 John 2:19

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Prayer and Evangelism within God's Sovereignty

One challenge that I have heard often leveled at those who have a high view of the sovereignty of God goes something like this: "If God is sovereign, why does He need us to pray and evangelize? Why must I be involved if, in His sovereignty, His will will be done and the elect will be saved?"

It is a fair question, one I have wrestled with in the past myself, but it betrays our tendency to think of God's commands in terms of His need rather than our own. For instance, when God gave us the ten commandments, it did not grow out of God's fear that the world would spiral out of His control if we didn't have some rules. Rather, God knows His creation so intimately that He knows that not committing adultery (and obeying all the other commandments) in the long run result in a happier, healthier humanity.

Perhaps you see where I am going with this now. Can God accomplish all He desires and ordains without my prayers to assist Him or "grease the works"? Of course. Can God save the lost without my participation in evangelism? Certainly. BUT . . . can I benefit from evangelism and prayer if I'm not actively participating in it? I think not.

You see, just as humanity benefits from living within moral guidelines God set for our good and ultimate pleasure, healthy Christians benefit from prayer and evangelism. When you become a Christian, you become a part of the body of Christ. Through this union, we are given the Holy Spirit and the heart of Christ. The "heart of flesh" that God puts in us desires the things of God. Nothing breaks that heart and makes it beat sluggish and slow like living a placid, menial Christian existence. God desires our obedience in prayer and the great commission for our own good.

Should we pray and evangelize because we love God and want to obey Him? Certainly this is the primary reason every Christian should. But I believe that our ultimate satisfaction and fulfillment as a child of God is at stake as well. Are evangelism and prayer hard work? Of course they are. But so is the fruit of the Spirit. Yet when I work at being more loving or patient or kind, I become a more satisfied and fulfilled Christian as those things come more naturally and with less work. So it is with prayer and evangelism. They should not be simply designated as tasks we do while the fruit of the Spirit (and the rest of the Christian walk) is seen as something to aspire to for happy, healthy Christian living.

Evangelism and prayer begin to make sense within God's sovereignty when we begin to see them in the context of our need rather than God's.

Tragedy strikes!

In a freak accident, I deleted almost half of my posts from this blog today. Easy, easy, all you haters, don't start the party yet. All is not lost. I've recovered most of them, and will be adding them as soon as I can.

So anyone with my blog on a blogroll will get a lot of posts from me that you may feel like you've seen before. Don't worry, it's not your coffee OD. And it seems I'll even be able to get them back to their original dates, so you may not even have to deal with the blogroll updates (not quite sure how all that works). If you made any comments on those, however, I am afraid they're gone forever.

On the bright side, I've been able to streamline my blog, trimming the fat from my tags. So enjoy browsing my newly condensed categorized tags, or check out My Book List and the posts my reading has inspired.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Is Christianity relevant?

The relevance of Christianity and the gospel has been a dominant theme in my thinking lately. So when several quotes in my reading and podcasting (or should that be podcast-listening?) addressed the issue, I couldn't put them down. I think it all started while reading Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, but since I can't quote the whole book here, I'll just endorse the book as a case study in the relevance of Christianity.

However, there were some quotes I did want to (and have the room to) share with you:

"Entertainment has destroyed our ability to think and prioritize. We lack discernment. We care about irrelevant things and ignore what is actually important. Unfortunately, the Christian community often responds by heaping 'Christian' noise on the rest of the noise. Attempting to be 'relevant' to students, we instead contribute to their appetites for distraction. Entertainment has made us silly and Christian entertainment has made our students silly Christians."
- John Stonestreet, Summit Ministries

"Under pretexts such as 'contextualization,' 'missional living,' and 'relevance,' an unbridled willingness to accommodate Divine truth to human preferences is now going on virtually unchecked in the modern and postmodern evangelical movement. Multitudes of Christians today think it is their prerogative to mold and shape everything—worship, music, and even the Word of God itself—to the tastes and fashions of the world."
- Phil Johnson, blogger with Pyromaniacs

"You are at your most relevant when you are at your most loving."
- Paul Matthies, guest preacher at The Village Church

I can spend so much time trying to watch the right movies, read the right books, and learn up on all the right topics that I neglect the "greater things". It's not that I'm avoiding working on becoming a more loving person. But if I am investing more time and effort to bolster my relevance than I am to build of my love for others, I will constantly be falling flat on my face.

Now, in reflection, my motives were good enough. I wanted to show the beauty, hope, and relevance of the gospel of grace and salvation in Jesus Christ. But if I only feel relevant while talking movies, books, and ideas that everyone else is talking about, I am deeply missing something. If I think that being able to talk about Lost, The Shield, American Idol, The Shack, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and all the other stuff gives me an edge over simply being loving (and growing out of that: gracious, winsome, humble, teachable, honest), then I have bought into a sad lie. If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge but have no love, I am nothing.