A couple years ago I attended a conference in D.C, missing the Ash Wednesday service at our congregation in Chicago. Instead I attended one offered by the conference. The service was beautiful and well thought out.
Some words were offered by Dallas Willard, but the only phrase I remember is when he said, “The Cross is the only way home.”
Of course Ash Wednesday is the day we are physically marked by the cross (on the forehead), as a sign that during Lent we are entering into a particular time of repentance of and purification from sin and temptation. So, at the end of the service we all went forward and receive the mark of the cross.
But about an hour later I noticed that everyone’s crosses had disappeared from their foreheads, mine included.
“This is not how it is supposed to be,” I thought, “What kinda of cheap ashes did they use?”
It seems there was more oil than ashes, and that my skin absorbed everything. At first it felt like everything was invalidated. Ash Wednesday was ruined.
But as I reflected more it seems that this is really what Lent is meant to be, a time where the Cross of Christ is fully absorbed into our bodies and our lives, that the cross is not just seen as a visible sign, but as our very way of living.
Today we are encouraged to follow our feelings to determine what is right and wrong. We are called to be authentic in deciding what is good and evil, even if—especially if—it conflicts with traditional religious norms. But does the Transfiguration tell us a different story?
But can we just invent our own language of what is good and evil?
I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve learned and then half-forgotten six different languages beyond English. I spent two years learning Spanish in high school and college. Then three years learning Hebrew and Greek while preparing for ministry. I then acquired a reading knowledge of German, French, and Latin while working on my doctorate.
Learning a language is a three-step process. First you learn the building blocks of the language—the alphabet and vocabulary. Second you add the grammar which teaches you how to string the words together. Last, along with mastering the previous two steps, you gain fluency by intimately learning the idioms and customs—something gained through contact with a native speaker.
The languages I learned faded because I only advanced through the first two steps. Fluency, or the creative and spontaneous use of a language, is something I never achieved.
Similarly, humanity has lost fluency in the language of good and evil—what we often call morality or ethics. Because of sin we lack fluency in the language of good and evil and are adrift in self-deceiving and self-destructive ways of living.
Into this vacuum we are encouraged to make up our own standards of good and evil, right and wrong. We are encouraged to be authentic to our throughs and feelings even while being conformed to the trends of our culture.
And it is here, as we reflect of the Transfiguration of Jesus, that we must tend to the words of God over Jesus: “Listen to him!”
In Genesis 3, the serpent promised Adam and Eve that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would be like God in knowing good and evil. Certainly Adam and Eve came to experience good and evil after they ate from the tree, but they didn’t come to know the different between good and evil. In fact, all of humanity since have been confused about what is good and what is evil.
As Isaiah says, we have become a people who “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Is. 5:20). We confuse the language of good and evil because sin has made our hearts devious and our minds darkened (Jer. 17:9; Eph. 4:18). Sin has clouded our thoughts and desires about what is good and what is evil. We have lost the basic capacities for speaking about them because of sin.
But God was unwilling to leave humanity in this state of confusion and separation—confused about what is good and separated from the One who is good. So God initiates a plan to teach us the language of what is truly good.
But we can’t just jump to Jesus and the command to “Listen to him!” We must first understand what God was doing in the Old Testament.
Law and the Prophets
The New Testament often groups the Old Testament into two sections, “law and the prophets” (check this out for brief into to how we got the Bible). It is through these that God begins to teach humanity—through Israel—what is good and what is evil.
Going back to the three steps of language learning, we could say that the law teaches Israel the vocabulary of what is good, and the prophets teach the grammar. But who is the native speaker who will teach us fluency?
The Law generally, and the Ten Commandment specifically, offer us the basic linguistic building blocks of the good. The Law gives Israel a new vocabulary for right and wrong based in the character of God’s holiness, mercy, and love. The regulation of things and people who are clean and unclean, sacred and profane, created zones of meaning and practice that teach Israel who God is, what sin looks like, and the difference between good and evil.
But knowing the vocabulary is not enough. Israel also needed to learn the grammar—they needed to learn the right way to put everything together. This is where the prophets came in.
Whether in school or at the office, people usually don’t like the grammar police. And people generally didn’t like the prophets. The prophets would tell the kings, the priests, and the people of Israel that they weren’t putting the pieces together in the right way. Samuel says that God has rejected Saul because he offered an illegitimate sacrifice. Nathan confronts David about his sin with Bathsheba. Elijah confronts Ahab and Jezebel for leading Israel into idolatry. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and many others remind Israel that they can’t just go through the religious motions because God desires justice and mercy more than sacrifice.
Through the law and the prophets God was giving Israel the vocabulary and grammar of the good. In fits and starts God was teaching the difference between good and evil.
But something was missing. God had given Israel the necessary building blocks through the law. God had taught the grammar through the prophets. But Israel kept turning away from God, leaving behind what is good and chasing after what is evil. Why?
In its sinful state, Israel—and all of humanity before and after—needed to learn from a native speaker, one who was fluent in what is right, good, true, and beautiful. We needed someone, untainted by sin, to come and show us what it means to live—to really live—the good life with God.
“Listen to Him!”
I failed to grasp and retain six different languages because I never practiced with a native speak. I never learned it from someone who love the language so much that it because a joy to speak it with them.
Likewise, Israel failed to follow God because they lacked guidance from a native speaker, a fellow human being who also perfectly followed God’s law.
Jesus—the truest word of God, the Word of God through whom came the words of the law and the prophets—comes to us as a native speaker of what is good. He comes to teach and model the difference between good and evil so that we might come to know the One who is truly good. Jesus comes as the third and essential step in learning a language—fluency in relationship with a native speaker.
Only when we listen to him will we truly know what is good—the good, pleasing and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2).
The Temptations of Jesus
It is helpful to think of the temptations of Jesus as Satan attempting to confuse what is evil with what is good.
In the first temptation (as the Gospel of Matthew tells it) Satan tells Jesus to turn the stones into bread. It is, after all, a good thing to be provide for, to have food to live. Jesus is being tempted to provide a good thing for himself. But Jesus counters by claiming that what is truly good is the life that come through obedience to God. Jesus focuses on what is truly good, not just a passing good.
In the second temptation Satan tells Jesus to test God’s protection by throwing himself off the temple. It is, after all, a good thing to be protected by God, so why not test that protection and make sure everything is in working order. But Jesus counters by claiming that trusting God is better than testing God.
In the last temptation Satan tells Jesus that he can have all the kingdoms of earth if he would only worship him. Here Jesus is being tempted with a good thing—receiving a kingdom—gained the wrong way. After all, Jesus is the rightful king of all things so it is right and good for him to receive a his kingdom. But to receive a kingdom by worshipping Satan is evil because, as Jesus remind him, we should only worship and serve God.
In each temptation Satan is trying to confuse Jesus about what is good. But Jesus corrects these perversions by focusing on what is truly good.
Correcting distortion of what is good and what is evil runs through the ministry of Jesus. He confronts the perverted language offered by the Pharisees, scribes, and priests, and replaces it with a different understanding of what is good, holy, merciful, and loving. And the people—and the demons—notice the difference. “What is this? A new teaching,” they exclaim, “and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him” (Mark 1:27).
The Transfiguration of Jesus
Moses and Elijah appeared during Jesus’ transfiguration. They represent the law and the prophets. They represent the first two steps of language learning. Moses represents the law which teaches the basic vocabulary of what is good and evil. Elijah represents the prophets who reminded Israel of the grammar of the good, pointing our errors and calling Israel to faithfulness.
But Jesus teaches us—as a native speaker—how to live what is good and resist what is evil. Through his life, death, and resurrection Jesus leads us into the depths of God’s goodness. This is why we are told to listen to Jesus. Of all people, he knows what he is talking about.
Today we are told to listen to ourselves, to listen to our feelings, to be authentic to who we are. But God is calling us to listen to Jesus.
In my teaching and preaching I often define a word by what it isn’t.
Faith is not
An Idea: not just something we think about.
An Emotion not just something we feel.
Faith is not an intellectual or emotional state. It is not what we think about God. It is not believing God exists. It is not what we feel about God, that we sense God loves us in our hearts—or that we don’t.
Ideas and emotions aren’t bad. I affirm God existence. And I think it would be a good idea for you to affirm it also. I affirm the love of God. And I would love for you to feel the comfort and acceptance of God too.
But when we say faith, that is not what the Bible generally means.
Faith is much more robust than merely an idea or an emotion.
Faith is Allegiance?
Faith—in the ancient world, which includes the Bible—meant something much closer to allegiance or loyalty.
But loyalty and allegiance are weird words—they have a bad wrap these day.
Allegiance is something we probably don’t think much about. Except something like “I pledge allegiance to…”
And loyalty—especially when it is demanded—seems manipulative and controlling.
Isn’t it just military dictators or tyrants who demand loyalty? Don’t cult leaders who demand total allegiance? Isn’t it just Darth Vader and the evil Emperor who demand unthinking loyalty and allegiance?
Faith in the Bible
But faith as loyalty or allegiance is very common in the Bible.
In the Old Testament God repeatedly tells Israel not to look to Egypt or Babylon for help against their enemies. God is supposed to be Israel’s help in times of trouble.
Israel is supposed to have faith in God. Their allegiance is with God, not Egypt. Their loyalty is with God, not Babylon.
And what does that mean practically?
It means Israel’s help comes from the LORD, not Babylon. Their deliverance comes from God, not the horses and chariots of the Egyptian war machine.
Faith answers these basic questions:
Who do you look to for help, assistance, or deliverance? That is the one you have faith in.
Who do you call on in times of trouble? That is where your allegiance and loyalty today.
Who do you call on for reinforcements? That is where your loyalty is.
Life is War Zone
You see, our lives are not so much a calm place where God wonders about our thoughts and feeling about whether God exists.
ACTUALLY, life is a war zone full of hazards and dangers, full of spiritual forces out to destroy us, AND WE ARE DYING OUT HERE.
And God promises to rescue us. And God IS rescuing us, leading us to safety, to salvation. And the way out of this war zone is to stay close to Jesus, to stay on narrow path that leads to life.
And the question is, Will you give your trust, your allegiance, your loyalty to God, to the one getting us through this?
Or will you, when trials and suffering and sorrows come, will you abandon him for something else. Will you put your trust and loyalty somewhere else?
Faith Hack: Allegiance to God
In this war zone of life, the genuineness of your faith going to be tested. Will you stay loyal to Jesus or not?
Jesus has the power to save us. Jesus is willing to protect us. Jesus is leading us to life in a new family. Will be given him our allegiance?
Will we trust him?
Will we cling to him?
Will we call to God for help?
Will we place our faith in God?
How would your relationship to God change knowing that faith is not a feeling or an idea?
How would your faith as loyalty and allegiance change how you perceive the ups and downs of life? What is God calling you to right now?
Often we think of “salvation” as a movement from or against: away from sin, hell, or the “world.”
But what is salvation for? What is it leading us to?
Is heaven the extent of our answer?
What if our idea of salvation needed to move away from a “place” (going to heaven instead of hell) and more toward a “person”?
Fullness of Life?
When I was in school preparing to become a pastor I had to practice evangelizing. At a local community college I talked with students about sin and death and heaven and hell (I know, not really the approach I would prefer taking).
While talking with a student I mentioned something about how Jesus came to bring “fullness of life” or “abundant life” (John 10:10). The student then ask me what that meant, what did the abundant life look like in my life.
Uh oh, I thought. Now I’m in trouble.
I didn’t have a good answer.
For me, at that time, salvation was primarily summed with going to heaven instead of going to hell. But this student was asking me what “fullness of life” looked like right now.
And I didn’t have a good answer for that—AND I KNEW IT.
I left with a valuable lesson—not about evangelism, but about my understanding of salvation.
Why Go to Heaven?
So often our first idea about salvation is going to heaven. But if we are asked what heaven will be like we have very little idea (clouds, singing… [crickets]).
My oldest son once commented that he didn’t really want to go to heaven. After overcoming my shock and surprise at being such an awful Christian parent I decided asked what he meant.
Heaven sounded boring to him. He didn’t know what we were going to do there. All his friends and family are here. All the things he likes to do are here. Everything he knew and loved was here.
And I couldn’t blame him. He was focused on the relationships, the people he loved, and the people who loved him. He isn’t old enough to think about death and the absence of people he loves. Everyone he loved was here.
This is especially clear in the letter of First Peter.
Peter uses a preponderance of “family” or “household” language to describe salvation. He even speaks of salvation as a “new birth” through which we enter the family of God the Father through Jesus the Son (1 Peter 1:3). And as “new born babies” we must grow up into this family of salvation (1 Peter 2:2).
Many of us take this “new birth” or “born again” metaphor lightly, but for the early church this was a revolution.
• Your social status no longer mattered.
• Your wealth no longer mattered.
• Your poverty or slavery no longer mattered.
• Your legal or illegal status no longer mattered.
If, as I said in the previous Faith Hack, if the gospel is “God with us” then salvation is entrance into that abundant life with God—beginning now and going on for eternity.
Can we think of salvation more in terms of people (God and others) rather than place?
Can we think of salvation as something that is coming into our relationships now rather than something to come later?
How would your view of God change if you focused primarily on your family relationship with God (rather than something else like “sovereign God” or “Lord of all)?
How would your view of others changes if your saw them as already part of your family, or a people you would love to add to your family?
Don’t miss the remaining 2 “faith hacks” on faith and holiness coming out the next couple of days (the first two were on God and the gospel). Subscribe and receive a free gift about how God’s glory is intimately connected to God’s love for us.
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In our hopes to transform culture we often forget about society.
And too often we split apart culture and society. This is bad for culture, society, and the church.
Culture is usually viewed with suspicion leading to separation or withdrawal. We have “culture wars” after all.
But society is usually viewed neutrally (if thought about at all). Christians just blend in with society, leading to capitulation.
Many view culture as the field of values and worldview, of messages and meaning.
Culture is where one must battle over a Christian worldview and Christian values. Culture is where the battle for hearts and minds is won or lost. This understanding leads to a “culture war” mentality based around key issues public prayer, whether to says “Merry Christmas” or not, or what it means to say “God bless America.”
This view of culture often leads feeling like we need to stand against and stand for certain things.
We often view society in a neutral light (if wethink about at all).
Society includes the structures and institutions through which culture expresses its values (education, economy, government, etc). But we often have a neutral view about these vehicles. The structures of society (politic systems, economic policy/practice, healthcare, military, police forces, prison systems) are neither good or bad.
This view of neutrality often leads to accommodation and capitulation to the structure of society.
Culture & Society Need God
Two things happen when we separate culture from society (focusing on one and forgetting the other).
First, we assume that sin is at work only in culture.
Too often we view sin as lodged with in the values and mindsets of people, and we see culture as the primary place to battle these influences. What this practically is that we don’t think sin has influenced our social institutions as a whole. But the Bible clearly teaches
When we focus on culture and forget about society we Christians blind ourselves to the effects of sin around us. We become blind to how the structures and systems of society are themselves possibility at odds with the kingdom of God.
Second, we then forget that the church is God’s alternative society.
When we focus on culture and forget about society we forget that God has created a new kind of society in the church. The church has a different kind of economics, a different kind of governments, and a different kind of education.
This doesn’t mean we can’t participate in the structures and systems of society. We can and we should.
But we must always remember and witness to an alternative way of living our lives. And this goes way beyond our “cultural” values.
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But what if our problem wasn’t with our faith, or with Jesus? What if our gospel is holding us back?
The gospel can hold us back if we only hear part of the gospel. This can happen in two ways. We can either hear about the “gospel of salvation” or the “gospel of the kingdom.”
Only a Gospel of Salvation?
The “gospel of salvation” focuses on individual sin. This gospel looks back to the cross as the place that God forgives our sins. And this gospel looks forward to heaven as the reward for believing in Jesus. And both of those things are good news.
But too often the “gospel of salvation” leaves us wondering how we are supposed to live right now. What should I be doing with my life right now? How do I find meaning and purpose right now if the goal of everything is just life in heaven in the future?
But in the meantime people give us a list of things to do (evangelize others, serve in the church, minister to the outcast). And all those activities are good things. But too often they can feel like another burden to bare, another law to keep.
It is easy to be discouraged, wondering how to make sense of the “peace and rest” that Jesus promised but now feels so elusive.
Only a Gospel of the Kingdom?
But maybe some of us focus more on the “gospel of the Kingdom.” This focuses on the here and now. God is on mission to transform the world, and we are called into this work. This perspective looks more to the resurrection of Jesus as the place where new creation springs forth. And of course this also is good news for us.
But too often focusing on our work to bring God’s kingdom to earth can burn us out. We can feel that every burden of the world, every injustice against the innocent, every evil action, is somehow our responsibility to fix.
No wonder we feel overwhelmed and burned out. No one could ever carry that load.
The Gospel of God with Us
But the good new is that the gospel IS NOT primarily a plan for our personal salvation. The gospel IS NOT primarily a plan for God’s kingdom come.
The gospel is not a plan at all. The gospel is a PERSON.
For the gospel is Jesus Christ himself, God become human—in order to dwell with us, in order to be with us.
4 Ways We Know The Gospel is a Person
The Apostle Paul describes the essence of gospel in terms of the person of Jesus (not a plan for salvation or God’s kingdom come). He does this in 1 Cor. 15:1-5 where he describes not a plan of salvation, but the live of the person Jesus.
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I [gospeled] to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
The Gospel of Matthew has the bookends of “God with us.” At the beginning an angel tells Joseph that the son Mary will bear will be called “Emmanuel”, or “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). At the end Jesus himself say, “Behold, I am always with you, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
The Gospel of John begins by telling us that the Word of God (John 1:1) took on flesh and lived—or dwelt— among us (John 1:14). The idea of God dwelling with humanity echoes the Old Testament Tabernacle which was made so that God could live with his people.
Lastly, all the books in the Bible that tell the story of Jesus are called “gospels”. This is because the early church understood that the entire life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was the good news of God for them.
The person who is Jesus is the good news, the gospel of God.
Faith Hack: The Gospel of God with you
Can we hack our understanding of the gospel?
Can we move our understanding away from a “plan” that accidentally leaves us as burdened, tired, and restless as ever?
Can we place the good news of salvation and the good news of God’s kingdom come within the person of Jesus who comes to us?
How would your life of faith be different if you focused on Jesus who IS THE GOSPEL? What would be different right now, no matter what is happening in your life, to believe that the good news is that God is with you?
And I choose messy relationships over the Nashville Statement (as I’ve said here and here, and David Fitch and I discussed on our podcast).
In fact, as I process the launch of Church Clarity I see 5 ways that Church Clarity is just the inversion of the Nashville Statement, albeit as a loving militancy.
What is Church Clarity?
You can read a supportive or critical summaries. But roughly, Church Clarity believes (from their site)
“that churches have a responsibility to be clear about their policies on their primary websites [about being affirming or not of LGBTQ]. Following a simple, yet consistent method, our crowdsourcers submit churches to be scored on how clearly their website communicates their actively enforced policies. Once the information is verified by Church Clarity, it is published to our database. We believe that ambiguity is harmful and clarity is reasonable.” (emphasis added)
Their desire is to minimize confusion by maximizing clarity. All of which—on the one hand—seems reasonable enought.
But let us think about the implication of a website like Church Clarity evaluating websites of local churches and posting the results. All of this is so abstract and disconnected—so far from the lived realities of local church life.
For this reason, beyond all their differences, Church Clarity is just like the Nashville Statement—but in an inverted way.
5 Ways Church Clarity is Just like the Nashville Statement
1) Truth and Love Dichotomy
On the one hand, the Nashville Statement pushed the agenda of truth without much regard for love or mercy. This was the complaint for many people I know.
Church Clarity, however, is pushing hard for love without regard for truth—except expressing the “truth” of being either affirming or non-affirming.
Church Clarity explicitly says it doesn’t care about matters of doctrine, only of policy. This is a typical progressive-liberal bifurcation of how love and truth need to work together.
Those of us upset with the “need to stand for the truth” posture coming from the Nashville State are likewise uncomfortable with the militancy—yes, militancy—of the Church Clarity site. Church Clarity positions itself on the side of love, but a love reduced to one issue, an issue reduced to whether or not it is posted clearly on the church website.
2) Push Toward Statements—Away From Relationships.
Both the Nashville Statement and Church Clarity lead us away from relationships. They prefer to substitute relationships for statements. The Nashville Statement says this explicitly, that we should separate from church that don’t sign. But Church Clarity also says this implicitly.
Church Clarity suggests that churches are merely a different form of consumerism and that churches who are not clear on the LGBTQ stance are engaging in false advertising (See their FAQs, first section). “Customers” could join a churches—engage in real relationships— and then find out the product was not what they thought.
This is a disastrous reduction—not just of the Church, but of all human ways of relating—the to principle of consumer choice. The application of this kind of clarity amid consumerism will just continue the deep antagonisms of our contemporary culture.
My questions is, Did Jesus function this way? Did he provide such clarity on his identity, the means of salvation, and every other question he was asked? No, he didn’t.
3) Tendency To Instrumentalize Humans and Institutions.
Both the Nashville Statement and Church Clarity drive toward reductionism and instrumentalization.
On the one hand, the Nashville Statement does this by instrumentalizing human beings for “God’s Glory.” Humans are just a tool by which God accomplishes certain goals, principally the exaltation of God’s own glory.
But Church Clarity goes the opposite direction. It instrumentalizes the church according to the goals of the state. As they say, churches
“are recognized by the IRS as tax-exempt religious organizations. In exchange for these subsidies, churches are expected to play a vital role of serving their communities. But there is very little accountability to demonstrate that they are earning that subsidy.” (emphasis added)
This continues the reductive, capitalistic view of human institutions—see the words “exchange” and “earning”.
But it adds the twist that the church is ultimately a tool of the government.
This is a curious inversion of the goal of the First Amendment where church and state would be separated—i.e. tax-exempt (esp. see this on tax-exemption)—so that government wouldn’t interfere with the Church.
But now, for Church Clarity, the government is expecting a return on investment from the church, with accountability pending if there is not (this is partly why I said this is more militant than the Nashville Statement. It is not for nothing that people fear this database is just a precursor to litigation).
The signers of the Nashville State undoubtedly seek to use the government in service of the church.
Church clarity inverts this and seeks to use the church as a tool of the government.
4) Engaging in Culture Wars
It is interesting that Jonathan Merritt quotes conservative Al Moler of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary on the importance of gaining clarity.
As Merritt states, “If one can set aside [Church Clarity]’s leadership team for a moment, it’s obvious that the organization shares a common goal with conservative Christians like Mohler: to pressure pastors and churches with unclear positions on homosexuality to unambiguously state their views.”
Yes, it is obvious that conservatives and progressives agree. Which means they agree that they are playing the culture war game, but from different sides. The church, however, should not engage in this war any longer (see the previous three reasons for why).
5) Ideological in Nature
I suppose this is a restatement of #2 and #4, but I just want to say it again.
Both the Nashville Statement and Church Clarity, in the name of helping and serving people, reduce the entire complexity of human relationships and interactions to a narrow grid of ideas and affirmations.
This approach sucks the humanity right out of the situation, all in the name of clarity.
How Peace is Achieved
I spent 11 days in Israel this summer learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the different ways they are seeking peace there.
The ONLY ONES working are the ones worked out on the ground in actual relationships. I heard of a water ministry helping to secure drinking water for everyone living off the Jordan River. I heard of school programs that brought Israeli and Palestinian children together. I heard of farming co-opts bring Palestinian and Israeli neighbors together.
On the ground relationships are the only way toward peace, mutuality, and reconciliation. Everything else is lost in abstraction and will only reproduce the entrenched tendencies present between people.
The Clarity of Jesus
To both the signers of the Nashville Statement and the directors of Church Clarity, I ask this: If clarity is so important, why did Jesus offer so little of it?
Why did he answer questions with more questions? Why did he speak in parables? And why do we have FOUR different Gospels instead of one?
It is because the clarity we often seek is not the kind of clarity God is drawing us into. God is drawing us further and further into the messiness of relationship, and further and further away from ideological encounters.
And it is time for people on all sides of the ideological—cultural war—spectrum to get used to it. Relationships are messy. Let’s get to work.
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We need to change our understanding of being born-again. And we need to change our emphasis on atonement.
“You’re a ‘born-again Christian’, right?”
I was asked this while at O’Mei, a fine dining Chinese restaurant I worked at through college.
My first thought was, Aren’t all Christians born-again? But I said, “I don’t know. What do you mean?”
There, in the back room of O’Mei my religious understanding of Christianity in America changed. My co-worker had just taken a sociology class on “Born-Again Christian Religion in America.”
But I didn’t know what a “Born-again Christian” was. I thought every Christian emphasized the need for adult conversion, the deep spiritual crisis brought on by consciousness of sin, resolved through faith in Jesus who died to forgiveness our sins.
In those years of college I was slowly learning that was an evangelical, a ‘born-again Christian’ who believed I needed to made a decision for Christ and believe with my heart in order to be saved.
Being ‘born-again’ roughly consists of two major movements (depending on which evangelist or tradition you come from).
First, you need to become aware of your sin and the consequences of sin. This usually entails fiery illustrations used to scared the hell out of you, or to put the fear of hell in you.
Second, you needed to have faith in Jesus to forgive your sins because he had paid the penalty for your sins. He paid the penalty by dying on the cross as a substitute for us.
This is the “penal-substitutionary” view of the atonement (a theological word I wouldn’t learn until seminary a couple years later).
Atonement = At-one-ment
Atonement is a funny word.
It is an English word created—yes, it was created—in order to translate the Greek words for sacrifice for the King James Bible.
People often break up the word “atonement” as “at-one-ment” to emphasize how the sacrifices bring people into relationship with God. They are now “one” with God.
We usually think this is just a cute preaching device to teach a concept. But funny thing, this is EXACTLY what the word means! It was created to mean coming to be “at-one” with God.
Trouble with Atonement
The trouble with focusing on the idea of atonement is that the process of often overwhelms the purpose.
We now have so many atonement theories, so many mechanisms for explaining what Christ’s death accomplishes, and so many disagreements about what is “most important”, that we often forget the goal of atonement.
And the goal of atonement is union with God, it is to live with God.
Born again into a new family
To be “born-again” is a fairly rare concept in the New Testament (though you might not know this in certain conservative circles). It shows up in John 3:3-7 and in 1 Peter 1:3 and 1:23.
From use in evangelical circles “born again”, one might think it means individual salvation from the consequences of sin. But this is wrong.
Being “born again” is a family term. It emphasizes one entering into a new family and living in a new household, a new home. To be “born again” is to enter God’s new home and live with God.
John H. Elliott says that one of the main themes in 1 Peter is the “at-home-ment”accomplished by God. In Jesus we can now approach God, live in God’s home, and call God Father.
Through God’s at-home-ment we live with God and God lives with us.
Now, if you follow me on Facebook or Twitter you know that “God with us” is a major theme for me. In fact, I think it is the theme the holds the entire Bible together, and indeed, it is the fabric of salvation itself—and the cosmos too.
(In fact, if you Subscribe to the blog I’ll send you the first chapter of a book I’m writing with my wife about all this “God with us” stuff.)
So I submit before you two things for consideration.
Being “born-again” is all about salvation, but not salvation through some atonement theory. It is salvation through entrance into a new family and a new home.
We should focus less on theories of atonement and more on practices of at-home-ment—”at home” with God and “at home” with one another.
How would a focus on at-home-ment change your understanding of the Gospel, of life, and the church? (Non-rhetorical question. I would love to hear your thoughts).
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Believe it or not, in eighth grade I wrote a song called “Home.”
It was all about “going home” to heaven, finally being with God. It was actually pretty good. In was an 8-bar blues song in the key of “C” with decent lyrics (for an 8th grader). I can still play it on guitar, but I’ve lost all the words—I’m sure you bummed.
Of course, given my evangelical-fundamentalist upbringing it is no surprise I viewed salvation as going home to heaven. The Rapture was going to whisk us all away. The earth was going to burn. And we needed to get everyone into the raft before Jesus came back and all was lost (yes, I know that is mixing metaphors of flood and fire, but hey, that’s what I was given).
Of course there are passages of the Bible that seem to suggest this—that we will leave this place and go somewhere else.
And for many that is GOOD NEWS. Because, well, this place can kind of stink. Many people can not find a home, a place to belong, or a place for love and welcome.
So, we’re going home!
But what if we aren’t going home.
What if our home is coming to us?
What if God had always made earth our home and will make it our home again?
This would fundamentally change the direction of salvation. Salvation is not about “us getting back to God” with a little help from God. Rather, it’s about “God coming back to us.”
So, really quick, here are 4 reason salvation is “coming”, not “going.”
4 Reasons Salvation is Coming
The Biblical Bookends Say So
Genesis opens with God creating a home for humanity in God’s presence. And this home is here. God created all things as a cosmic-temple of his presence. In addition to this, God walked and talked with humanity in the garden-temple of his presence. And in Revelation, at the end of all things, we hear of heaven coming down to earth. And heaven comes so that God can dwell with humanity forever. If heaven is the place God lives, then every passage that speaks of heaven as somewhere else must be provisional, not final.
God comes to Israel With the call of Abraham and the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, to the building of the tabernacle and temple, God comes to his chosen people. And when God comes there is salvation and life.The entire life of Israel is marked out by the fact that God lives with them. The sole purpose of the Law was to facilitate the presence of God among his people.
Jesus is the who comes as sent
Jesus, the Son of God, is sent to us as one of us. He comes to “dwell among” us as the “tabernacle” of God (John 1:14). Jesus comes declaring the kingdom of God and his ministry makes it present. In Jesus, heaven is coming to earth in forgiveness, in healings from sickness, in deliverance from the powers.In Jesus salvation has come to us.
The Church comes as sent
And finally, like it or not, the church comes with the presence of God.It is no small thing that they church is called the “body of Christ” or the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” These both indicate the place where God dwells (in a primary sense, although God of course is in all places and times—which is a comfort to all who suffer in secret).
The real question is, Are you welcoming God home in your life right now?
And the next question is, Are you living as a home for others?
(This post it is part of my “20 for 20” post where I write for twenty minutes a day for twenty days. So these are quick thoughts as I push out my ideas and practice writing. See my explanation here.)