Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Narrow Gate 

In response to a question regarding the meaning of Luke 13:24 "Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able."

Does this passage teach that people had faith in Christ but didn't try hard enough, and so were not saved?

People desire salvation. They desire the benefits of Christianity. They desire happiness, peace, forgiveness. But they want to gain those things on their own terms. They want to gain them in a way that satisfies their pride, their lusts, their desires. They don't want to repent and submit to God.

The passage in question essentially means, I think, that the only thing necessary to go to hell is for people to just keep doing what they're doing, to do what comes naturally. To find life, a change is necessary. We have to do what is hard for us- to repent, to renounce our ability to save ourselves, to renounce our right to govern our own lives. People want to just do some ceremonies, to profess the right things, to check off the right boxes and go to heaven. But true salvation comes when we surrender, when we confess Jesus as Lord. If Jesus is Lord, then He's the boss, He tells us what to do, and we do it.

A lot of people in the Gospels believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but they wanted Him to be the Messiah they wanted Him to be, to serve their selfish ends. They never surrendered to Him, and when He disappointed their expectations, they left Him. True salvation is never accomplished by a half-way effort. Jesus said that if you put your hand to the plow and look back, you're not worthy of the kingdom of heaven. We're not saved by our works, we're saved by our faith. But we're not saved by a belief that if we just do the minimum, just check off the right boxes, then God will get off our backs and leave us free to do what we want. The faith that is worked by the Holy Spirit works a complete surrender to Jesus as Lord.

Jesus goes on in that passage to talk about those who claimed the right to enter heaven based on the fact that they showed up when religion was going on- "Lord, we ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets." They participated in religious activities. But Jesus rejects them, calling them workers of "iniquity", that is, lawlessness. There was no repentance, no desire to change their lives to conform to God's truth, and therefore there was no faith, no relationship. There was just a desire to jump through a few hoops to gain the blessings of salvation.

That is the broad and easy way. The narrow way, the way that few find, is the way repentance, of surrender to the rightful Lord of creation.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

No Religion? 

 I recently asked a question on my Facebook page about the unwillingness of many Christians to identify Christianity as a “religion”, or even an unwillingness to identify themselves as Christians, but rather as “Jesus-followers” or something similar.  This trend has bothered me for a while, and I wanted to understand.  The question unfortunately degenerated into a rather foolish and beside-the-point argument.  But nonetheless, through that question and some associated research, I discovered some links to some people who make this argument.  Here is the "Not Religion" web site.  Here's a church saying "Want God, not religion?"  Here is Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Facebook page, which features a link to a video called “Jesus vs. Religion”.  He starts by saying “religion is about me, my works, my efforts.”  Other sites that I found seem to say something similar.  So it seems to be the case that Driscoll is opposed to legalism, opposed to self-absorption, opposed to pride, opposed to self-righteousness.  Certainly I don't have a problem with any of that.  I'm against all those things too.  Except, wait, I use the term religion.  Does that mean my faith is all about me?  Mark Driscoll seems to think so.

Or maybe I'm using the word wrong.  Driscoll is obviously a smart and very successful guy.  So?  What does the dictionary say religion is?

-The worship or service of God or the supernatural.  -A personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs or practices.  -A cause, principle or system of beliefs held to with ardor or faith.

Huh.  Seems to be plenty of room in there for what Driscoll talks about.  He talks about things he believes.  He talks about practices he engages in, or avoids.  I see just from his FB page that he's against homosexuality, thinks people ought to get involved in church, and ought to treat women good.  He's against the idea that you can work your way to heaven.  That's a belief or principle, and he certainly seems to have ardor and faith.

But language is all about usage.  So how do people actually use the term "religion", beyond what one source says?  Wikipedia says that religion is "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of life and the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency, or human beings’ relation to that which they regard as holy, sacred, spiritual, or divine."  Wikipedia is a user-edited website, so that's some indication of usage.  Also, I know that on my Facebook page (and a lot of other people's), under "Religion" I put Christian.  And I'm pretty sure my beliefs are at least in the same ballpark as Mark Driscoll.

So what gives?  Now maybe I'm biased since I wrote a book and called it "The Essentials of the Christian Religion".  But it seems like they're putting a meaning into the word "religion" that it doesn't actually have.  How about the Bible?  What does it have to say about religion?  

The word "religion" or "religious" appears seven times in the New Testament, in the New King James.  It translates two different words, deisidaimonia and phreskeia.  Both of those words can have positive and negative connotations.  Neither appears a whole lot in the Bible.  But we're talking about an English word and how we use it.  How did the translators use it?  In at least one place, it definitely has a positive connotation.  
James 1:26-27:
 26 If anyone among you thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this one's religion is useless.
 27 Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.

So there's a good religion and a bad religion.  And it depends on sincerity and a willingness to follow through with what one claims.  A religion which does not result in wise and careful speech is a worthless religion.  A religion which results in charity and purity is a good one.  So it all depends on context.

But here's the bigger problem.  People have been calling themselves Christians and using the word religion to describe Christianity for a long time.  When you say "I don't have a religion" or "I'm not a Christian, I'm a Jesus-follower", it kind of feels like you have contempt for all of those other people, and think that your understanding of Jesus is somehow more pure and sincere than theirs.  But the church as a whole is concerned with all the things you're concerned with.  Every sincere Christian, even those who use the word "religion", are concerned with a sincere, true relationship with the Lord.  They call on Jesus' name in times of trouble.  They ask forgiveness of their sins.  They strive to live a holy life in thankfulness to God.  They put their faith in His sacrifice.  They help the widows and orphans.

So what do you gain by this usage?  Seeing Mark Driscoll preach and talk, it's very clear that he's anxious to distance himself from traditional Christianity, even though he would not exist were it not for that Christianity.  Likewise for all of the other sites I found touting themselves as being "not religion"- rock and roll aesthetics, and a lot of time talking about why they're different.  But every one of us stands on the shoulders of giants.  A great many men and women labored, sacrificed and even in many cases died so that Driscoll could have the Christianity that he has today.  He didn't just make it up on his own.  None of us do.  And those many many men and women called themselves Christians, and described themselves as religious.  The Belgic Confession, the French Confession, the Westminster Confession, the London Baptist Confession and many others all use the word a great deal.  John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon both use the word, positively, a great deal.  Who is Mark Driscoll or anyone else that you just get to paint all of those people as shallow legalists?

We don't get to just redefine words.  Words mean what they mean, according to the way large groups of people use them.  And when I say I am "not religious" or distance myself from the word "Christian" then I am cutting myself off from the overwhelming majority of the universal, historic Christian community.  This whole "Not religion" movement or "Jesus vs. Religion" is intellectually dishonest, and comes across really arrogant and divisive.  I will not impugn Driscoll's motives.  He seems to be someone truly trying to spread the gospel, though I haven't studied his teachings exhaustively.  But I think everyone needs to remember, when we do the work of the kingdom, that we're not alone.  We all stand on the shoulders of giants, we're all part of a very large world-wide community and we should be very careful before we dismiss and mock and separate ourselves from all those who have fought and suffered and labored in the kingdom before us and alongside us.  Certainly the historic Christian religion has a lot of flaws and rough spots.  But she is our church.  If we love Jesus, we will love His church, flaws and all, and work to make her better, not to self-righteously condemn and belittle her and all of those that Jesus has bought with His own blood over the last two thousand years.

Free Will 

The Calvinist / Arminian debate is often seen from the perspective of "free will".  I am not sure this is really the best way to characterize the true nature of the debate, to ask the question whether man has a free will or not.  Better to ask what "will" is, how it functions, and where it comes from?  What is it that determines the choices we make?

Most Reformers are comfortable using the term "free will", in fact.  We have to define it properly, of course.  I don't think it's best to discuss predestination at the point of man's decisions frankly, because man is truly called to make a choice constantly in Scripture.  Predestination rightly understood takes place a step back from the will, at the point of man's nature from which will arises.  So man's will is free in the sense that he is not compelled from any outside source from ultimately choosing to follow God or not to follow God. The will then is free to be what it is- the faculty by which, when confronted with choices in my life to make, I prioritize those choices based on my values and my understanding of how those values will be best served by those choices, and then take action based on my perception of what will best serve my values.  People do this all the time, and do it well.  The emphasis in predestination is therefore properly on the nature, and how the nature of man can become something capable of choosing good, or even desiring to choose good.  This is the problem- our natures are corrupt, desiring bad things, and our will reflects this.  It's not that the will is malfunctioning, or restricted in some way.  Our will is properly reflecting our values.  A bad tree cannot bring forth good fruit.

This helps us address the fact that God constantly calls on man to choose to obey God.  Ezekiel 33:11, for example- "Turn, turn from your evil ways!  Why would you die, O Israel?"  This should not be a challenge for the Calvinist, because as the rest of Ezekiel makes clear, the unbeliever cannot, will not turn from his ways until the stony heart is taken out of his flesh and he is given a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:25).  Only then will he hear the word of God and do it. Once the nature is changed, the will follows.

As the quotes above show, the Scriptures talk frequently about the choices we make and where those choices come from.  Choices we make simply are not made in a vacuum.  They come from our nature, which is completely corrupt in Adam.  We hate God, hate his image in others, and our choices reflect this.  This is why regeneration is necessary, why a transformation of the nature is necessary.  "You must be born again", as the Scriptures tell us.  Only with the transformation of the nature can different choices begin to happen.

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