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Why We Shouldn’t Unhitch Christianity from the Old Testament

Rev. Andy Stanley, one of the most influential preachers in America and pastor of one the largest churches, recently made some statements regarding the Bible that rightly raised some serious concerns. He said Christians need to “unhitch” themselves from the Old Testament, which he sees as “a house of cards” that keeps many sincere seekers from accepting the Christian faith. In trying to explain the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, he argued that the Apostles were not only unhitching the church from the Old Testament, but also from the entire worldview found in it. Rev. Stanley further argued that Christianity is not based on a text (i.e. the Bible), but on an event alone, namely the resurrection of Jesus. Moreover, he insisted that the Church derived certain, but lesser requirements for Gentiles only for the sake of unity, not because of anything the Old Testament says. One of those requirements for Gentiles to abstain from sexual immorality, Stanley further insisted should not be defined in any way from the Old Testament. Instead, he argued, the apostle Paul’s own letters reveal that he only defined sexual immorality according to a vague principle of treating others the way you want to be treated. In other words, Stanley argues that Paul’s definition of sexual immorality is not informed at all by the law (Torah). Stanley’s message makes it clear that this also includes the Ten Commandments. In fact, he claims the Old Testament should not be “the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.”

Initially I thought Rev. Stanley had probably misspoken and was misunderstood. When I actually listened to his message myself, however, it was worse than I suspected (See his message HERE). It is a very confused message to say the least, and one of the worst cases of eisegesis (reading things into the Bible that are not there) I’ve ever heard. Rev. Stanley wants to separate the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the law altogether. His argument seems to be that the New Covenant does not overlap with the Old in any way.

Here is the problem. Before and after the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) it is obvious that the apostles and Christian evangelists preach the Gospel from the law and the prophets, not apart from the law and the prophets (see also Galatians 3:8 and context). The “apostle’s doctrine” (Acts 2:42) was rooted and grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures. It wasn’t their own ideas that they developed based on an experience with the resurrected Jesus apart from Scripture. The apostles teaching was derived from the Scriptures, the law, the psalms, and the prophets. And they didn’t discover these things simply upon their own reflection; Jesus himself taught them these things beginning on the first day of his own resurrection.

We must remember that Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Acts shows the continuing ministry of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through the Church, the body of Christ on earth. Although Rev. Stanley argues that the resurrection of Jesus alone is the foundation of Christianity, Jesus himself taught in the parable of the rich man and the poor beggar, Lazarus, that if people will “not hear Moses (i.e. Torah—the law—the first five book of the Bible) and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). It is also worth noting that shortly before the telling of this parable, Luke has Jesus saying, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the law to become void” (Luke 16:17).

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Jesus also says:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. ~ Matthew 5:17-20 ESV

Even a cursory reading of the four Gospels reveals that Jesus saw what he was doing as a fulfillment—not a nullification— of the Scriptures, again what we call the Old Testament today. Significantly on the very first day of the resurrection, Jesus leads his disciples in a Bible study through the law, the psalms, and the prophets to shown them how he had fulfilled them in his death and resurrection (see Luke 24). Despite the claims of Andy Stanley, nowhere in the New Testament are we given the idea that the resurrection alone, apart from the Scriptures, is the foundation of the Christian faith. Hence Paul’s reminder that the teaching handed down by the apostles, who were eye witnesses of the resurrected Jesus, was “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures …” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4 emphasis mine). 

The New Covenant was a promise of the law and the Prophets fulfilled by Christ (Compare Deuteronomy 30:1-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-28). The apostles and evangelists in Acts in their preaching and teaching showed how the promises of the law and prophets were fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. You see this in Peter’s first sermon as he repeatedly quotes from the Old Testament (Acts 2). You certainly see it in Stephen’s sermon for which he is martyred (Acts 7). You see it in the ministry of Philip as well. When the Ethiopian eunuch asked him about Isaiah 53, Luke says “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Although Philip began his testimony about the good news of Jesus from Isaiah 53, you can be sure his message didn’t get stuck there. The Spirit of Christ would have certainly inspired him to show the Ethiopian how Jesus was the fulfillment of all the Scriptures as Jesus himself did on the first day he was raised from the dead (again see Luke 24). The apostle Paul also preached and taught this way, even after the Jerusalem Council where the supposed “unhitching” occurred.

Acts 17:2-3 indicates that is was Paul’s habitual practice to reason “from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, who I proclaim to you, is the Christ.'”
This loudly echoes the resurrected Jesus’ very own message on the first Easter Sunday to the disciples on the road to Emmaus and later that day to his disciples gathered behind closed doors back in Jerusalem (See specifically Luke 24:25-27; 44-49). Later in Acts 17 Luke commends to Bereans for searching the Scriptures to confirm for themselves the teaching of Paul and Silas. The obvious reason they searched the Scriptures is because it was the apostles’ custom of prove from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah. Apollos also preached from the Scriptures to prove that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 18:28). Again the preaching of the early church, the doctrine of the apostles, was the word of God as it pertained to the resurrection of Jesus and the hope of resurrection for all God’s people in the future. It was not, however, detached from the Scriptures. Their message came directly from Scripture. In fact Paul, while under interrogation, tells King Agrippa,

To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles. ~ Acts 26:22-23 (Emphasis mine)

Acts concludes with Paul under house arrest in Rome. There Paul continued “testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23). It certainly doesn’t sound like the church had “unhitched” itself from the Old Testament, much less the entire Old Testament worldview as Stanley claims. So what was going on at the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15?

Well, they discerned from the Old Testament that Gentiles who were coming into the church through faith in Christ did not have to first become Jews through circumcision and be required to keep all of the ceremonial laws required of Jews under the Old Covenant. As Old Testament Professor Bill Arnold argues, the elders in Jerusalem led by James, the brother of Jesus, discovered from the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit that the Gentiles who were becoming Christians could abide by the few regulations required of Gentiles living in Jewish communities according to Leviticus 17-18 (see specifically 17:8, 10, 12, 13 and 18:26 which pertains to sexual immorality). The key is that these verses from the holiness code found in Leviticus pertained to what was also expected of the resident aliens living in Israelite communities. These would be uncircumcised non-Jews who were content to live among the Jews without becoming Jewish. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church at the Jerusalem Council found guidance for what should be expected of Gentile converts in terms of basic behavior as they lived among Jews and had fellowship with Jewish Christians. I know that this still leaves lingering questions about how expectations might have been different for Jewish Christians and the ongoing significance of the Jewish ceremonial law for them. Nevertheless, the main point again is that even at the Jerusalem Council the elders of the Church decided the questions before them in this transitional period with the guidance of the Spirit and from the law and the prophets, the latter made obvious with James’ quote from Amos 9 (Acts 15:12-21). Here the council was far from unhitching the church from the Old Testament. Instead they were trying to discern how to best understand the implications of the fulfillment of its promises in Jesus Christ and how best to apply the intent of its principles and precepts as Gentiles were welcomed into the family of God.

Much more could be said here, but the greater details of the implications of the Jerusalem Council are beyond the scope of what I want to do with this article. The point is that it is a little bit unhinged to try to unhitch the church from the Old Testament. It is also a bit unhinged to try to base Christian faith on the event of the resurrection alone apart from the Scripture. Jesus didn’t do that; neither did the apostles. The resurrection, they insist, is to be understood in the context of the precepts and promises found in the Law of Moses and the Prophets. The meaning and the significance of the resurrection must be derived from the context of the written revelation found in the Bible, including the Old Testament. It is also unwise to argue that the term sexual immorality should not be informed by the Old Testament as Stanley does. It is even more unwise to argue that the Old Testament should not be “the go-to source regarding any behavior in the church.”

The fact is the New Testament quotes and alludes to specific Old Testament passages repeatedly and voluminously. Take for example 1 Peter’s call for holiness (I Peter 1:13-16), which Peter justifies by quoting Leviticus 11:44, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” Consider as well Paul’s use of Israel’s negative example in the wilderness after the exodus to warn the predominantly Gentile Corinthian church about the dangers of idolatry and sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). He specifically says, “Now, these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (10:6). Rev. Stanley even insisted that the Ten Commandments should not inform any behavior in the church. He believes the New Covenant that Jesus established is “completely detached” from the Old Testament worldview. He believes Jesus came to establish a completely new worldview. In other words, for Stanley there is no continuity at all between the Old and New Covenants. This is just simply wrong! Again think about what Jesus actually said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.       Matthew 5:17-20

Think too about what Paul says about Christian love in Romans 13.

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.  Romans 13:8-10

Paul’s understanding of love is obviously informed by the Ten Commandments. He also clearly thought the Old Testament was not only inspired, which Stanley concedes, but Paul also thought it was sufficient to make one “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and to equip God’s people “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:14-16). And contrary to the claims of Andy Stanley, Paul’s understanding of sexual immorality is also informed by the holiness code (Leviticus 18) and the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 19:1-12) . Whereas Stanley seems to want to understand sexual immorality in the New Testament apart from anything in the Old Testament and boil it down to a vague principle that would seem to allow anyone to interpret it anyway they want so long as they “treat others the way they want to be treated,” Paul actually defines it much more strictly. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-10 Paul indicates that the way to avoid sexual immorality if one cannot control their sexual passions is to get married. And the context indicates that Paul viewed marriage as being between a man and a woman. Moreover, as Paul warns about sexual immorality throughout 1 Corinthians 5-6, it is obvious that his understanding of its definition is informed by the Levitical holiness code and the Ten Commandments. Adultery is included in his warning in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and his term for homosexual behavior is a term coined directly from two words in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. This fact is even clearer in 1 Timothy 1:8-10 where it is obvious that his vice list, which includes that same coined term for homosexual practice, arsenokoites, is specifically informed by the law.

Suffice it to say, the New Covenant should not be understood to be completely detached from the Old Covenant. It is true that the foundation of the New Covenant is not the Mosaic Covenant. Its foundation is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Yet, although there is discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, there is obviously still much continuity. New implies that there would be some differences. But the moral laws of God summed up in the Ten Commandments, which themselves are summed up in the two great commandments to love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and neighbor (Leviticus 19:18), are still in effect. It is true that it is the spirit of the law not the letter that is most important, but the spirit of the law as it applies to the New Covenant family of God still has a great deal of continuity with the letter.

One  way to resolve the confusion is to remember what the promise of the New Covenant actually was. The promise of the New Covenant was that God’s people would be forgiven, given a new heart and a new spirit along with God’s very own Spirit, and his laws would be written on their hearts so they could obey them (see again Deuteronomy 30:1-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-28). Jesus fulfilled that promise, and it will ultimately be fulfilled in its entirety in God’s people in the resurrection (See Ezekiel 37). But even now through faith in Christ and the gift of the Spirit we experience a glorious foretaste of the world to come.unhithced shipwreck It’s certainly not the mind of the Spirit that would lead us to unhitch or detach ourselves from God’s law. For Christians to unhitch  themselves from the Old Testament is a sure fire way to make “shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19; also see context!)


There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. ~  Romans 8:1-11 




Simon the Sorcerer: Losing the Prosperity Gospel; Finding the Mind of Christ

Acts 8 tells the story of Samaritans receiving the word of God, and eventually the Holy Spirit once the apostles, Peter and John, came to pray for them. Luke, the author of Acts, the sequel to his Gospel, tells us that the Samaritans had been under the spell, literally, of a sorcerer named Simon. Luke tells us that Simon practiced magic. The type of magic here referred to doesn’t mean pulling off tricks by slight of hand like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Simon was into spells and incantations of the variety that would bring people fortune and success, perhaps also practices that would bring misfortune to one’s rivals (i.e. think of voodoo). His craft probably also included invoking the favor of powerful spiritual beings, known in the ancient world as daemon, the Greek word from which we get the English word demon. Then and even with these types of practices today, these beings were not necessarily all viewed as evil among pagans, although some were.

Simon was a practicing pagan. His craft brought him great prestige and fame among the Samaritans. I’m sure he promised to bring the people of Samaria great fortune, but it was he himself who prospered the most. Yet when he heard the preaching of the Christian  evangelist Philip, and saw the sign and wonders that Philip performed, Acts 8:13 tells us that, even Simon himself believed and was baptized. Now the great Baptist preacher Adrian Rogers insisted here that at this point Simon was really an unbelieving believer. That is he professed faith, but for the wrong reasons. As the story later reveals he witnessed a power greater than what he already had and he wanted it for himself seemingly to only enhance his already great prestige and personal glory.

Peter and John came to pray for the Samaritans to also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The reason they were delayed in receiving the Spirit is not stated, but it might be so there would be apostolic witness to this momentous event as the promise of Acts 1:8 and Acts 2:39 was fulfilled. This was the case when the Gentiles, Cornelius and his household, would also later receive the Spirit just as the apostles had on the day of Pentecost (Acts 10-11). Nonetheless, when Simon say how the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands of the apostles, his true mindset and state of heart was revealed.

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.” And Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.”

Acts 8:18-24 ESV

Simon was still thinking like a pagan, not like Christ. For the pagan in the ancient world, religion was centered on attracting the favor of the more powerful forces in the universe. It was focused on personal or collective fortune and success, similar to the ways people still go through certain rituals to bring themselves good luck even today—like the kid on a baseball team I helped coach who refused to wash his pants! Ancient pagan religion was not connected to morality. That was left to the political leaders and philosophers to establish in the name of societal order and stability. It is a historically unique and essential revelation of the Bible that connected religion to morality, love of God and neighbor (see John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths). The Bible, in other words, connects sacrifice and mercy, with priority given to the latter, as it is especially revealed in the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus. Simon, even though he had been baptized, still did not have the mind of Christ. Hence, Peter’s harsh rebuke, which reminds me of the harsh rebuke that Peter himself at one time had received from Jesus (Mark 8:33; Matt 16:23). Simon was still only thinking about himself and how this profound power of the Holy Spirit could benefit him.

Jesus actually revealed the difference between the typical pagan mindset and the mindset that his followers should have. He warned the crowds and his disciples not to be concerned about their own personal wealth. He told them not to be consumed by seeking the fulfillment of their own desires, but to center their lives on the will of God. After warning them about covetousness (i.e. greed), Jesus says:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!  And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them.  Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.

 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  Luke 12:22-31  (see also Matt 6:19-34)

Jesus here, and in Matthew 6, says the nations, the Gentiles, those outside the covenant community of God, are consumed by the fulfillment of their own desires. But his followers should be focused on the will of God. Simon was still thinking like the rich fool that Jesus warned about in a parable (Luke 12:13-21). He still thought it was all about him, that the gift of the Holy Spirit was for his own personal benefit. Although it seems he responds positively to Peter’s rebuke and truly repents, his name would later be used in the tradition of the church to describe corrupt church leaders who used their office in the church for their own personal gain; a practice that came to be known as “Simony.”

What Simon needed to understand is that “Spirit-led leaders use the gift of power for the good of others, not for their own aggrandizement. Spirit-prompted leaders die to self for the good of others” (a quote by Scott McKnight retweeted from Seedbed by a friend). Being filled with the Holy Spirit and finding our place to use our gifts in the body of Christ—which is what all believers should do, not just clergy—is not for us to make people marvel at our own so-called greatness, but to marvel at the greatness of God.

People still often come into the church only because of what may be in it for them. Sometimes people go into full-time ministry for their own self-aggrandizement, motivated by a desire for power, acclaim, and/or wealth. Recently there was another televangelist who said God wanted his supporters to send in donations for him to buy a new $54 million dollar private jet, even though he apparently already has three! He private-jetpromotes what is called the “prosperity gospel” and “word of faith” theology. The latter is the idea that if you think positively and make verbal confessions in line with your positive thinking you can receive from God whatever it is you want. As the proponents of this type of theology say, you “believe God for whatever it is you want.” So this preacher, Jesse Duplantis, is “believing God for” a new private jet that will be bought with the donations of his followers. The “word of faith,” positive thinking and confession theology, is similar to what is taught in modern new age circles, although they call it “the law of attraction.” The problem, either way, is it keeps people focused on the very things Jesus says not to be concerned about, laying up treasures on earth rather than being rich toward God (Luke 12:13-21).

Sometimes people respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ for the wrong reasons. Sometimes they come because of the attention it draws to themselves, rather than the glory it brings to God. I ministered to a young man one time who was in jail. There he sought any means possible to better his life. He professed faith in Christ, but immediately began to talk about going into ministry and perhaps even writing a book to “share his testimony.” I saw the dollar signs in his eyes; his mother even told him that she was disgusted by the pride of which he reeked. Latter he admitted that he was seeking attention for the wrong reasons and lying to everyone. We had a very candid conversation about it. The beginning of Christian maturity is when we realize it’s not all about us.

Sometimes people profess faith in Christ without receiving the mind of Christ. The Son of God, the Word who became flesh (John 1:1-18), used not his great power to be served, but to serve. His greatness was revealed most fully and clearly in his humility. After years of being steeped in a self-centered view of faith myself, I finally lost all the faith I had in the power of my own faith. I also lost my mind. The good news is I found the mind of Christ in the second chapter of Philippians.

  So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.       Philippians 2:1-11

On Twenty Years of Marriage

May 23rd this year makes twenty years that Christi and I have been married. We got married in a whirlwind and we’re still twirling through life together after all these years. The day we were married there was a severe thunderstorm with tornadoes. The storm almost blew Christi’s grandparents and uncle off the road as they drove to the wedding. It also knocked out the power at the historic old train depot where we held the wedding and reception in Grifton, NC.

whirlwind of love

We got married by candle light in the sweltering heat and smothering humidity of eastern North Carolina. At our reception on the outside deck we danced our first dance to Don Williams’ “Years from Now.” The music resounded from a battery powered boom box as we twirled around together. Twenty years and six children—#6 is due in a few weeks!— later, we’re still dancing (mostly figuratively sometimes sillily); and we’re still loving each other.

There have been plenty of other storms. We made it through Hurricane Floyd together in 1999. We’ve also made it through many severe emotional storms when the high pressure of her OCD met the low pressure of my ADD. There have also been the storms where my high and unrealistic expectations, or hers, met the lows of reality. Some of those storms shook the very foundations of our otherwise happy home.

We’ve had lots and lots of good times; but we’ve had our fair share of bad times too. Sometimes the latter has been because of our bad choices and selfishness. Sometimes because of difficult circumstances that were out of our control. We’ve been through periods of great frustration, anxiety, spine-crushing pressure, sadness, and deep depression. In Christi’s case the latter has been clinical and required hospitalization a couple of times. Sometimes I was understanding and compassionate; sometimes I was resentful and selfish.

At times we have both hurt each other deeply. Sometimes we haven’t been able to stand each other. Now, thankfully, we mostly just understand and forgive each other. In many ways we have both changed so much for the better. In other ways not so much. But we choose to love each other anyway. And love her I do; I know she loves me too.

The negative aspects of life and people have a way of blinding us to the blessings right in front of our eyes. Sometimes our own insecurities mislead us to expect to be loved perfectly by one who is flawed and stumbles because of sin in many different ways. There is only One who loves us perfectly in all our imperfections. Through discovering that perfect love, we learn to love those who are sometimes, sometimes a lot of the time, unlovable. We also learn to be thankful for the good things of which there are many, none of which we should take for granted.

The day of our wedding I toasted my new wife with a quote from Proverbs: “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord” (18:22). Christi, isn’t the best thing in my life; the love of God in Christ Jesus is. But Christi is a good wife. In fact she is a great wife, and because of that I am blessed beyond measure, more than I deserve.
There are seven reasons why we are forever joined together. The first is because we said I do and I will. The other reasons are our six wonderful children. Our six children, one for each of the active days of God’s work in creation (Genesis 1), remind us of our sharing in the ongoing work of creation, and the new creation as we make disciples of Jesus Christ. I told Christi when I first asked her to marry me that I believed God brought us together. There have been times we both doubted it. But we don’t doubt it today.

In love or out, we choose to act like we love each other every day. By act I don’t mean pretend; I mean we act on our decision to love. There’s a reason that love and faithfulness are virtually synonymous in the Bible. Love is much more than a fleeting and fluttering, sometimes faltering emotion. Love is a decision of the will to love because of, and sometimes, by the grace of God, in spite of.

Christi is one of the greatest blessings I have ever received. She is an amazing mother and she is an incredible wife, both in ways great and small. We got married in a whirlwind. We’ve held on to each other as God has held us up through all the storms. We’re still twirling through life together and loving each other every day. I thank the Lord, who is able to calm the storms around us and in us, and through the rushing mighty wind of the Holy Spirit is able to blow new life and love into us.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Ephesians 5:31-32 ESV

Cliff and Christi (1)

The UMC: Talking about the Future With Your Church

The future(s) of the Untied Methodist Church hangs in the balance awaiting a special called session of the General Conference scheduled to meet February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. The hope is this General Conference will be able to approve a solution to the current impasse the denomination faces over the presenting issue of sexual morality. If a solution is reached or not—many including me are doubtful that the UMC is functional enough to reach a consensus on any proposed solution—each  local church faces the reality of an uncertain future for which they need to be prepared. The time to start the conversation has long past, but if your church has yet to talk about it wait no more.

In my conference (Western NC) a delegation has been assigned the task of leading “Healthy Conversations” regarding the current state of the church and the possible future(s) of the UMC. I attended the session in my district on April 22nd.

The moderators of the discussion were two progressive women, one a lay delegate to the 2019 General Conference, the other a deacon and clergy delegate to the General Conference, who also works in our Conference office. The lay delegate shared the history of the additions to the Book of Discipline regarding the practice of homosexuality since 1972, and the more recent open declarations and acts of “ecclesial disobedience” among progressives, such as the Western Jurisdictions election of an openly lesbian Bishop shortly after the 2016 General Conference. She just stated the facts without adding her own commentary. Likewise, the clergy delegate explained the development and the stated goals of The Commission on a Way Forward (COWF), which consists of representatives from across the theological spectrum and from around the global connection.

The COWF was tasked by the Council of Bishops to propose possible solutions to the current impasse in the UMC over issues regarding sexual morality. She explained the three possible sketches given by the Council of Bishops last fall:

  1. Affirm the current Book of Discipline language and place a high value on accountability. The church policy book says the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching” and lists officiating at a same-gender union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as chargeable offenses under church law.                                                                                              **(Presently it seems the COB will not propose this model, but it could still possibly be proposed from the floor of the General Conference.)**
  2. Remove restrictive language and place a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  3. Create multiple branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice. This model would maintain shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops.

*Each possibility includes a way to exit for those church entities that feel called to leave the denomination.*                                                    

The gathered group at this district meeting, clergy and one lay representative from each church, were also shown a video of Rev. Tom Berlin explaining the current factions in SugarPacket_Blogthe denomination as he sees it using sugar packets. Rev. Berlin, who is in favor of the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, describes four factions. From left to right they are:

1. Progressive Non-Compatibilists, who see anything less than full inclusion (i.e. full acceptance including LGBTQ+ beliefs and behavior) as a intolerable injustice.

2. Progressive Compatibilists are those who prefer full inclusion without exception, but are willing to live with the second sketch above, sometimes called “the local option,” where pastors and churches would not be forced to participate in same sex weddings, for example.

3. Traditional Compatibilists are those who hold the traditional view regarding Christian sexual morality, but again would be willing to remain in the denomination that allowed for “the local option.”

4. Finally, there are the Traditional Non-Compatibilists, who could not in good conscience remain in a denomination that allowed for the acceptance and promotion of what they see as sin according to Scripture.

While somewhat helpful in terms of general descriptions, Rev. Berlin’s presentation is misleading in a number of ways. (see Rev. Berlin’s Video Presentation HERE)

  1. It is too America-centric. The United Methodist Church is a global denomination. General Conference representation is made up of people from around the world. Representation from very conservative areas of the world continues to increase while representation from the United States is on the decline. Membership in Africa has grown significantly since 1968, while membership in the United States decreased from about 11 million to around 7 million today. Rev. Berlin, himself, says in his presentation that on the current trajectory membership in the United States is expected to drop below 1 million over about the next thirty years. Barring a miraculous reversal (and a miracle is exactly what it would take) General Conference representation will eventually be predominantly African. In Rev. Berlin’s presentation he literally marginalizes the African voice and talks about it only as an afterthought. That is a mistake and seriously misleading.
  2. It is also too centrist-centric. That is, Rev. Berlin’s presentation makes it seem like the “compatiabilist” camp is the overwhelming majority. In fact, the clergy moderator of our district conversation sent out a social media message several months ago promoting the centrist “Uniting Methodist” movement essentially saying that 90 percent of the church agreed with them. If that really is the case then why did our own annual conference in 2015 vote down a petition to call for the removal of the restrictions against homosexual practice in the Book of Discipline? The lay delegates from my own church were appalled that so many clergy voted in favor of it, but because of the lay representation the measure failed. I have no doubt that if it was up to the American representatives alone across the United States a measure like that would pass, but it is not up to the United States alone! Moreover, Rev. Berlin’s presentation has the effect of painting those in the non-compatibilist camps om either end as extremist. Being on the end of a spectrum on a particular issue doesn’t make one an extremist. As someone else said, no one wants to be identified with the lunatic fringe, so a presentation like this has the tendency to make people want to to identify themselves somewhere in the middle even though it may not accurately reflect their true views.
  3. Another problem with Rev. Berlin’s presentation is the lack of specificity. His model is based on conjecture and anecdotal evidence not hard data. And each faction should be defined much more specifically, especially, I think, the so-called traditional compatibilists category. What is it that these folks actually believe? Are these people who believe the practice of homosexuality is sin, along with other sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman, which if engaged in unrepentantly would exclude one from the kingdom of God as in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10? If so it’s hard to see how they could be comfortable treating it as an indifferent matter anymore than they would treat any of the other sins listed there in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that way. In fact, Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, in his assessment of Rev. Berlin’s model, believes traditional compatibilists are a rare breed indeed. In his view the centrist category is populated almost entirely by progressive compatibilists. (Read more about that HERE).
  4. The way Rev. Berlin describes progressives’ and traditionalists’ views of the authority of Scripture is also problematic. He implies that both value the authority of Scripture equally, but just emphasize different portions of the Bible. He does this by implying a greater tension between the law and the prophets and and the Gospels and the letters of Paul than actually exists. Rev. Berlin says traditionalists emphasize the laws regarding personal holiness found in the Pentateuch whereas progressives emphasize the message of the prophets and concern for the marginalized in society. I assume, like many progressives, Rev. Berlin also believes Paul wrote some things in his letters like the aforementioned passage from 1 Corinthians that the Jesus of the Gospels would not necessarily have condoned. While I do understand that different passages in Scripture present us with tensions and paradoxes, I do not believe it does so to such an extent that the prophets, for example, give messages that are blatantly contradictory to the law. The ministry of the prophets was to call God’s people back to faithfulness to the law not to progress past it. Jesus certainly substantiates this in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17-20 (see also Luke 16:16-17). In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and the marginalized poor beggar, Lazarus, Abraham from paradise tells the rich man in hell that the law and the prophets are enough to keep his brothers from ending up in hell too (see Luke 16:19-31). Jesus certainly didn’t see any major contradiction between the law and the prophets, and there is none between Jesus or Paul either. In fact two of the great prophets, Jeremiah (31:31ff) and Ezekiel (36:25ff) foretold the promise of the New Covenant that Jesus came to fulfill wherein God would write the law on his people’s hearts. Rev. Berlin unnecessarily and unjustifiably pits Scripture against Scripture to confuse. The historical position of the Church has been, following the analogy of faith, that Scripture is mutually illuminating not hopelessly contradictory. Moreover, when progressives like Rev. Adam Hamilton are arguing that not all of the Bible is inspired by God contrary to 2 Timothy 3-4 (see context) and to the teaching of John Wesley (see his Preface to his notes on the NT, section 10), it is more than a stretch to argue that progressives value the authority of Scripture just as much as traditionalists.

During the second half of the district conversation we were also given some questions to discuss with those sitting at our round tables. It seems Rev. Berlin’s video presentation and the discussion questions were designed to promote, subtly at least, “the local option.” One of the questions was on whether we thought of diversity as a strength or weakness. At my table there were six people, including me, and the views spanned the full spectrum. One person was very progressive, one leaned progressive, one said she was right in the middle and three of us were traditional non-compatibilists, or at least leaning heavily in that direction. Concerning the question about whether diversity is a strength or weakness, we all seemed to agree that it depends on exactly what one means by diversity. If the diversity is complementary and directed toward the same common goal then it is a strength; if it is contradictory and competing with people whose ultimate goals are contradictory then it is a weakness.

A related discussion question was whether our common mission outweighs our differences. At our table, there seemed to be agreement that our common mission was to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Yet we also agreed that when it comes to specifics we probably have very different visions of what makes a Christian disciple a disciple. We also agreed that we may very well have contradictory and competing visions of who Jesus is and what he really desires of us.

Another question was about what we think the church needs to do to reach the non-religious and those who have stopped attending church. The very progressive person at our table said the church should truly have “open hearts, open minds, and open doors” and accept all people for who they are.  I asked, “Do you think the church in any way should expect and call for transformation, a change of heart and lifestyle, for people who become members of the church?” She said she wasn’t sure. I said, “well let me give you a specific scenario.”

“Let’s say I have a married couple, a man and a woman, attending my church. After several weeks they decide they would like to become members. When I as the pastor talk with them about faith in Christ and what it means to be church members, they inform me that they have an open marriage. They say they have thought a lot about it and do not see anything wrong with it. They believe their desires to be with other people sexually are a good gift of God and perfectly natural. And as a matter of fact they would like to have their swingers club meeting in the fellowship hall of the church and invite other church members to participate.” Then I asked, “what should I tell them as the pastor?” Again, my progressive conversation partner wouldn’t commit one way or the other.

Think about that in light of the progressive “Denver Statement” made in response to the conservative “Nashville Statement” last summer regarding sexuality.

 WE AFFIRM that God created us as sexual beings in endless variety.
WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gendered, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married. But if you fit in that group, good for you, we have no problem with your lifestyle choices. (emphasis mine)

The kind of diversity that some are so eager to sanctify and ratify is not a strength. We we have contradictory and competing visions of who Jesus is and what he expects of us. We have been operating with these contradictory and competing visions in America for quite some time, even though the progressive vision has never gained official General Conference approval. The results prove that John Wesley was right that doctrinal indifference is “a great curse, not a blessing” (Sermon 39:3.1 “Catholic Spirit”). More doctrinal indifference (i.e. contextuality) is not really the blessing that some would have us believe.

Walter Fenton and Rob Renfroe ask in their new book regarding the current state of the United Methodist Church, Are We Really Better Together?   As do they, I think the overall results in America already show that the answer is clearly no. I highly recommend Rev. Fenton and Rev. Renfroes very succinct book to get an inside view of how we got to the point we are at today.

The “local option,” also called “the one church contextual model,” (sketch 2 above) will not bring a truce. It will only prolong the battle and intensify it by localizing it. It will bring the heat of the battle from the General Conference level down to each annual conference and each local church. You can’t bring unity through attempting to sanctify division!

Regardless of what happens at the special General Conference next year, each local church needs to be prepared one way or another. The leaders of our district’s “Healthy Conversation” emphasized this too. Each church needs to decide where it stands. As a church who are you? What do you value and why? You need to be specific. This is not the time for vague platitudes. Some fallout is unavoidable no matter what. Avoidance hasn’t helped us avoid fallout either, has it? Every church I have served has already lost people on all sides. The church I serve now was on the verge of losing dozens of people just a couple of years ago. Over several months we had discussions about the current state of the denomination, and the possible future(s) given in those three sketches above. We talked about the presenting issue and the deeper divide. We also opened the conversation up to the whole church. After much consideration our church council decided that we stand with the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The conversation has not been easy, but it has been absolutely necessary. Where does your church stand? Have the conversation to find out. It needs to happen and soon. May God give you wisdom and courage.

(Here are some of my thoughts about how to go about it from a traditional perspective).


Is Salvation Easy?

At beginning of certain sermons on the Christian doctrine of salvation, I have sometimes asked rhetorically: Is salvation easy? Most of the time most people seem to at least nod that it is. Some have shouted out a resounding “Yes!” even with an added “Hallelujah!” only to soon discover that’s not the answer I will be delivering. Actually, no, salvation is not easy according to the Scriptures.

I was at a funeral once, when at the end of his message the preacher talked about how easy it is to be saved. He succinctly summarized the gospel saying, “Jesus died for your sins, all you need to do is accept his forgiveness and ask him into your heart. It’s all really quite simple and very easy. If you want to receive Jesus as your Savior just raise your hand right now,” he concluded. A few hands went up. The preacher said, “Praise the Lord!” and that was that. I saw no attempt at further counsel with those individuals, and there was no indication that there was any need for it since it all was made to sound so easy.


But it really isn’t easy! Salvation is hard!

This is where someone might interject, “But what about what Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30?”

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” ESV

Doesn’t this mean salvation really is easy? Well, yes and no. Salvation through faith in Jesus is easy compared to trying to save oneself through a commitment to a self-righteous legalism. This is not true, however, because salvation is possible but much more difficult through a system of works righteousness (i.e. earning one’s salvation); it is true because earning salvation through our own efforts is impossible. Compared to trying to earn one’s salvation through adherence to legalistic standards, salvation through faith in Jesus is easy because it is possible. In itself though this does not mean that salvation comes and is completed in us without great difficulty.

Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. ~ Matthew 7:13-14

So here, according to Jesus, salvation is hard; it is damnation that is easy!

After a conversation with a rich young man, who chose to walk away from Jesus rather than walk away from his wealth,

Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” ~ Matthew 19:23-26

Salvation apart from the power of God’s grace is not harder to achieve; it is impossible! Just as impossible as it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a sewing needle. And he really is talking about a sewing needle not a special gate within a gate in a city wall that would be possible for a camel to pass through if it was unloaded of cargo. The comparison here is on what is possible verses what is impossible.

The disciples extrapolate Jesus’ statement about the rich to apply it to everyone in general, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus doesn’t correct them to say salvation is actually easy for some and hard for others. He says salvation is humanly impossible, but made possible only by the power of God!

Salvation is not easy for anyone! It is hard!

One reason why we mistakenly might believe it is easy is because we don’t take the multidimensional nature of salvation into account. Salvation is more than justification and forgiveness of sins; it also involves new birth. Salvation involves not only a change of status from guilty to not guilty; it also involves a change of heart. Who would say giving birth or being born is easy? Who would call a heart transplant a piece of cake?!

Salvation is also not just a one time event; it is a lifelong process from the point of justification to the return of Christ and the resurrection of the body in the New Heaven and New Earth. It is not just entering through the narrow gate; it also includes the journey on the hard road. And this is not to mention the arduous and often painful journey to the gate in the first place.

We see the difficult journey of salvation reiterated in the preaching of the apostles in the early church too.

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. ~ Acts 14:21-22

Genuine Christian faith is not just a one time commitment; its is a lifelong commitment that requires endurance. We have need for an enduring faith. The good news is we can count on the sustaining grace of the one who promises that he will never leave us or forsake us (Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5).

The multidimensional nature of salvation is evident in the fact that the Bible describes individual salvation as a past event, an ongoing present tense process, and a future hope of full redemption when Christ comes again in glory. We can say that we have been saved; also that we are being saved; and that we will be saved at some point in the future.

Salvation is also multidimensional in that it involves grace, faith, and good works, albeit in different ways.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10

We must not put a period where the word of God has a comma! We are saved by grace, through faith, AND for good works. Look at the way Titus 2:11-14 describes the work of grace.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Grace is not just what God does for us; grace is also what God does in us! Grace not only brings forgiveness of sins and new birth; grace also trains us in righteousness to be zealous for good works! This training is not easy!

Good works ARE NOT the cause of salvation; they are the effect of salvation. Grace is the cause; faith is the way we receive it; and good works is the fruit.

It seems that it’s pretty common for the difficulty of salvation to be downplayed if not outright denied. This happens in circles from fundamentalist to liberal, albeit in different ways.

Salvation was certainly not easy for Jesus to procure through his suffering and death on the cross. But we may deceive ourselves into thinking that Jesus paid it all so nothing is required of us. I once saw a church sign that said, “Jesus paid it all; You get to keep the change.” Wrong! The hymn writer got it right, “Jesus paid it all; all to him I owe!”

The gift of God is free, but it is not cheap! Neither is it easy to receive. We must receive it through faith. Faith, the saving faith the Bible speaks of, is not even possible apart from the grace of God, but that doesn’t mean it comes easy because of the grace of God. Trusting Christ and Christ alone for our salvation and with our lives and eternity is made possible by the grace of God, not easy!

Biblical faith is to trust and obey! Obedience is not separate from faith, it is the other side of the same coin. And we must believe in our hearts, at the very center of our will and being, not just in the back of our minds. (For the connection between faith and obedience see John 3:36; Romans 1:1-6).

A New Testament professor I once had said when it comes to salvation there is no “if/ then.” That professor is a universalist, who puts a period where the word of God has a comma. There is no period after grace in Ephesians 2:8. Faith is required! But what God requires he also provides, but still this should not be interpreted to mean that it is easy.

Although we exercise faith by the power of God, it doesn’t mean its not a work out. Saving faith does not come easy! Sometimes we do need to cry out in the strain, Lord, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

There is an if when it comes to salvation despite what people like William Paul Young say. Young says:

The Good News is not that Jesus has opened up the possibility of salvation and you have been invited to receive Jesus into your life. The Gospel is that Jesus has already included you into His life, into His relationship with God the Father, and into His anointing in the Holy Spirit. The Good News is that Jesus did this without your vote, and whether you believe it or not won’t make it any less or more true.

Young says this in chapter 13 of his book, “Lies We Believe About God,” wherein he argues that it is a lie that “you need to get saved,” which is the title of the chapter.

On the day of Pentecost, when the crowd responds to Peter’s sermon by asking “what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37), Peter said something quite different from Mr. Young, who also wrote The Shack.

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Likewise in response to the Philippian jailer, who asked “what must I do to be saved?,” Paul and Silas responded with, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31).

If you read the New Testament you will see that salvation is not really easy and there are a lot of “ifs” that cover the multiple dimensions of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Here’s a sample of a few.

because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. ~ Romans 10:9-10
So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” ~ John 8:31-32
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. ~ Colossians 1:21-23
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. ~ Galatians 6:7-9

Grace is free but, as Bonhoeffer said, it is not cheap. Salvation is a gift, but receiving it is not easy. The journey, as John Bunyan, the author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, well knew is hard. The destination, however, is more than worth the pain and hardship. Jesus not only made the destination possible; he made the journey possible too. Sometimes we need to be reminded that Jesus didn’t die on a cross so we can relax in a recliner. Jesus took up his cross so we could also take up ours. Jesus didn’t die so we wouldn’t have to; Jesus died and was raised again so that we too could die to ourselves in order to truly live for God. With humans this is impossible; but with God all things are possible!

Does Belief in the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Make one a Christian?

So you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Do you believe it was a miracle of miracles that really happened in time and space, an actual historical event, not just a metaphor? If yes, great! But does that alone, belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus a Christian make? Maybe not!

I do believe it is necessary to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian, but I don’t believe everyone who believes in it is. I know the reality that many Christian theologians and pastors for philosophical reasons do not accept the bodily resurrection as a historical fact. Because of their naturalist presuppositions they rule out the possibility of supernatural miracles a priori. In this case not only the resurrection is ruled out, but other miracles recorded in the Bible as well.

Since I’ve been a pastor in the United Methodist Church, I’ve had more than a few lay people tell me, to their dismay, that they’ve had preachers who tried to explain away miracle stories in naturalistic terms. The most common story explained this way, apparently, is the one of Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes. Rather than actually miraculously multiplying a meager five loaves and a couple of fish (the modern American country boy in me likes to envision this as a few saltines and a couple of sardines) to feed thousands with plenty of leftovers, the naturalist explanation is that Jesus just inspired individuals to share what they really already had with them. Of course, one who would preach this as a mere metaphor for inspired generosity, might be a bit more reluctant to preach the resurrection stories as mere metaphors too even though that is what he or she really believes. Yet, evidently, not everyone is as timid in that regard. I know of churches who have also been alarmed by their pastors denial of the bodily resurrection too. One lay person said a pastor he had in a Episcopal church said he didn’t believe in life after death at all. He taught that eternal life was a metaphor for the good life of peace and justice here in this world as it is and nothing more.

But what if a person really does believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Does that mean she or he is authentically Christian? Well, not necessarily. There is another important question. What does the bodily resurrection of Jesus mean to you?

In his book, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003), N.T. Wright gets to this question in his conclusion. There he tells of a Jewish scholar who believes that Jesus was truly bodily raised from the dead; yet he does not believe Jesus was the Jewish messiah or the divine Son of God.

The Jewish writer Pinchas Lapide has declared that he believes Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. Indeed, he believes this far more solidly than many would-be Christian theologians. But this belief does not make him a Christian. For him, the resurrection does not ‘mean’ that Jesus is in any sense, whether messianic or divine, the ‘son of god’. Rather, it means that he was and is a great prophet to whom Israel should have paid attention at the time. ~ N.T. Wright p. 721

So you believe in the resurrection. But what does that mean to you? What do you believe it means about Jesus of Nazareth?

Jesus meant for his miracles to be more than just displays of power; they were signs with symbolic import. They served to draw attention to his identity as the messiah and king of Israel. They also served to reveal his identity as the divine Son of God. As I shared in a previous post when Jesus calmed the storm on the sea, his disciples asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41 ESV). The answer based on the allusions to the Old Testament present in the story, startling as it may have been, is this man, Jesus, is the embodiment of Israel’s God!

If a person believes that Jesus really was raised bodily from the dead, but that he was only a manifestation of one of many valid gods in a pantheon of myriads of different gods who also may be helpful to connect with an impersonal “ground of being”, are they Christian? If a person believes that Jesus was only one of many ways to be saved are they really Christian? If people believe Jesus was really raised from the dead, but was only a man who achieved divinity as myriads of men before him, or that he was the first man to reach the threshold for optimum God consciousness, does that make them Christian? What of someone who believes Jesus being raised from the dead vindicated him as the greatest moral teacher, maybe even the greatest prophet, but not the divine Son of God in a unique sense? How about someone who sees the resurrection as an indication that Jesus may be their best bet to bring them good luck for success and fortune in this world?

John, who also records Jesus declaring,  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), says he wrote his Gospel, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). 

The apostle Paul declares:

.. if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. ~ Romans 10:9-10

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus is a requirement for salvation, but not the only one; Confession that Jesus is Lord is as well. Context determines meaning. The God here referred to is no impersonal ground of being which is legitimately manifested through myriads of gods or natural forces. This is the God of Israel who claims to be the one and only true God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who gladly intervenes and acts in history. And this is the personal God, who became incarnate (John 1) in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, who also gladly shares the divine title “Lord” with his Son (see also 1 Cor 8:5-6).

Icon of the Resurrection – Wikimedia Commons

In the ancient world miracles served an authenticating purpose (see Craig Keener, Miracles, (Chapter 1; Baker Academic, 2011). The resurrection of Jesus from the dead vindicated him in his claims and what he taught and revealed about God and eternal life, including salvation and damnation. The resurrection also vindicated the historical claim of the God of Israel to be the one true God and the world’s rightful Sovereign.

N.T. Wright puts it this way:

The resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true sovereign, the ‘son of god’ who claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation. He is the start of the creator’s new world; its pilot project, indeed its pilot. ~ The Resurrection of the Son of God p. 731

You believe Jesus was raised from the dead? Great! Have you confessed Jesus as Lord in the sense above? Even better!



Criticizing the Church

Christians have received their fair share of criticism throughout the history of the church. Some of that criticism has been well deserved and much needed. That’s true whether it’s come from outside the church or, prophetically from within. Reproof and correction is two-thirds of the word of God if you consider 2 Timothy 3:16’s formulation that Scripture is for teaching, reproof, and correction. All three are needed if we are to receive the “training in righteousness” of which the same verse speaks. As Proverbs 6:23 says: “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (ESV) Christians should not only expect reproof and

The Prophet Jeremiah

correction, we should desire and love it. The truly wise certainly will.

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. ~ Proverbs 12:1

Not all criticism is equal though. Constructive criticism is good; but not all criticism is constructive. Some criticism of the church is indeed godly and prophetic. The reproof from Jesus himself in Revelation chapter 2 and 3 come to mind. Other criticism aimed at the church in general or at individual Christians in particular, however, is not intended to bring life, and it is not of God. The devil, which literally means “the one who slanders,” specializes in criticism himself. Another name for the evil one from the Hebrew is Satan. Satan means the adversary or “the accuser.” The criticism of the devil is anything, but constructive. To slander is to direct false and damaging accusations against someone. It is to bear false witness. Of this the evil one is the master and that in more ways than one.

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. ~ Revelation 12:9-11

Satan uses criticism to stir up hostility against Christians and to pressure the church to conform to the ways of the world. Much of the positive change that has taken place in the history of the church has been in response to godly prophetic criticism. We would call this transformation more into the image of God by the renewal of the mind. Not all change, however, is for the better. A lot of change in the church has been in response to slander. The result has been conformity with the fallen world, which is still under the sway of the devil. If we change too hastily in response to criticism we just might find ourselves dancing with the devil rather than walking with the Lord. Some of the bad criticism has come from people outside the church; lately much of it has come from within. Interestingly, Robert Louis Wilken, in his book, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, notes how Enlightenment arguments against orthodoxy, much of which comes from “critics” within the church, in many ways mirrors—sometimes uncannily—the arguments of pagans against the church in the ancient Roman Empire.

Wisdom is knowing the difference between genuinely prophetic godly criticism in which there is life, the life of God, and criticism that is ultimately destructive and leads to death. One will lead us on a hard, narrow path to life; the other on a wide, easy path that leads to destruction. May God give us discernment to know the difference and courage to take the right path.