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What the church needs now
How will we respond to the current crisis of evangelical faith and practice?
The Christian churches need, more than anything else, to provide an authentic alternative to the contemporary status quo. I’m not calling on American Christians to become Anglican, Orthodox, or even Presbyterian. I am calling on them–on us–to recover our sense peculiarity and different-ness from prevailing cultural norms.
Not a superficial difference
I’m not talking about the superficial difference that comes from a change in Christian tradition as if somehow becoming, for example, an Anglican is going to please God or make a difference in our culture although it may certainly do no harm (unless it is really the latest and cloaked version of the desire to be cool).
The kind of difference I’m talking about is not marked primarily by vestments, by latin words and phrases, or by a churchly calendar. It is, instead, a difference marked by an experiential encounter with the grace and glory of God–J. C. Ryle refers to it as a “habitual communion”–that produces a change far deeper than ecclesial practices. It creates the willingness to lose our lives for the glory of God and for the sake of the world.
The current crisis
If the Bible tells us anything it tells us that the people of God are pretty gifted at wandering from God. Whether its becoming comfortable in Egypt, making a golden calf, failing to enter the land of promise, choosing violence over trust in Gethsemane, doubting the resurrection, placing our faith in the law rather than in grace, copying the sexual mores of culture, we see all of it play out in the pages of the Scripture. What’s more the church’s misadventures didn’t end with the close of the canon.
As much as at any time since I’ve been alive, the churches of North America have lost our way. We seem to be grasping to preserve political influence at the cost of our deepest theological convictions.
A line of four American Presidents stood together at the funeral of one of their number. Three of them actively recited the Apostles’ Creed. One of them refrained, standing close-mouthed at the end of the rank of leaders.
It’s a telling image.
This is a president effectively elected by evangelicals who, despite our trust, has repeatedly expressed his unbelief and hostility to the message of the gospel as well as his personal commitment to a way of life antithetical to it. In spite of all this he remains the closest association with a term–evangelical–derived from the Greek word for “gospel” or “good news.”
It raises the legitimate questions. Have we sold our birthright for a mess of pottage? Do we even know who we are anymore?
We are, at best, deeply confused and confounded.
We have believed a lie
In a sermon for Holy Week the late John Webster warns us of the power of the original lie. Holy Week was, in Webster’s words, “the triumph of falsehood.” In the moment of choice when presented with truth, light, and life, they chose the lie.It was a lie first told in the Garden. Israel believed the lie and they did so a representatives of humanity. You have believed the lie and so have I.
Learning to tell the truth
We cannot be the church while we are beholden to the lie. And we will always be beholden to the lie unless and until Christ shines the light of his grace into our faces and removes the scales that have formed on our eyes.
The Christian message is a truth-telling one. The truth we tell forth is the person of Jesus who is God. Webster writes,
[Christ] dies because in him there is spoken the truth of the human condition. He is the truth. In his person, as the one who he is, as the one who does what he does and says what he says, he announces the truth of the world, and thereby exposes its untruth. He shows up human falsehood in all its depravity.
…In him there is a complete judgment, an unambiguous showing of the truth from which we may not hide. It’s this which is at the core of the conflict between Jesus and Israel; and it’s for this that he is sent to his death.
What is the final terror which he evokes in those who hear him? Simply this: ‘they perceived that he was speaking about them.’
John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian. (Lexham Press).
J. C. Ryle, Practical Religion. (Banner of Truth).
I picked up a collection of the late John Webster’s sermons published by Lexham Press under the title Confronted by Grace (2015). The first sermon in the collection, entitled “The Lie of Self-Sufficiency,” is a Holy Week sermon on Matthew 21. It’s a powerful meditation. One section captured my imagination and quickened my heart:
At the heart of the story of the passion, therefore, is the confrontation of truth and falsehood. Why does Christ die? Why is he suppressed, cast out and finally silenced by death? Because he speaks the truth. He dies because in him there is spoken the truth of the human condition. He is the truth. In his person, as the one who he is, as the one who does what he does and says what he says, he announces the truth of the world, and thereby exposes its untruth. He shows up human falsehood in all its depravity. And he does so, not as a relatively truthful human person, nor even as a prophet inspired to declare what is hidden, but as God himself. His words, his declaration of the truth, are God’s declaration. He is therefore truth in all its finality; truth unadorned, truth which interrupts and casts down every human lie, every obstacle to seeing reality as it is. In him there is a complete judgment, an unambiguous showing of the truth from which we may not hide. It’s this which is at the core of the conflict between Jesus and Israel; and it’s for this that he is sent to his death.John Webster, Confronted by Grace: Meditations of a Theologian (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 6-7.
What is the final terror which he evokes in those who hear him? Simply this: “they perceived that he was speaking about them.
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We have forgotten how to make critical distinctions in our reasoning
I recently sat with a friend and talked about mistakes we had almost made when we were younger. Youth–if you ask me–is synonymous with mistakes, yet this is something almost totally ignored in contemporary youth culture.
As I recounted a moment in which I made a good decision–yet a moment when a bad one was startlingly within reach–my friend responded, “it’s okay if you did [i.e., if you made the wrong decision].” I wanted to reply, “Actually no. It wouldn’t have been okay.” It might have been understandable. It might even have been justifiable. It could have been redeemed, but it would never have been okay.
That little work “okay” carried with it the (modern) human impulse to make a conversation partner feel better about himself and avoid the perception of a negative judgment. Here’s the thing though, “okay” also carries with it the possibility of cheap grace and shrouds a relatively clear scenario in an unnecessary moral opacity. Okay cannot carry the freight of moral decision-making and we shouldn’t ask it to.
Two truths in tension
(1) Actions have contexts that inform them
Discerning conversations requires us to keep two truths in tension. The first is that some actions are morally wrong and cannot be other than that in the form in which we encounter them. Every moral action takes place in a context and the decision cannot be separated from the context in which it is made.
It is not wrong to kill a man who threatens your life. It is always wrong to kill a man who has done nothing others than stroll down the street. It is not wrong to sleep with a woman you meet in a bar if that woman is your wife. It is always wrong if she is not.
(2) God is greater than our moral choices
The Bible tells us that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Put another way, we all regularly make choices that contravene God’s law. This is simply a fact of life. If God wanted us to live in a state where it is impossible to sin then God could usher in the new heavens and the new earth. For reasons known only to him–surely among them extending to us the chance to turn to him (2 Peter 3:9)–God has delayed inaugurating his full reign. We therefore have time to repent and time in which we must continue to wrestle against sin and temptation.
God is greater than our moral choices and therefore is able both to absorb them and to change them thereby producing something good in our lives. Redemption does not, however, remove the consequence of sin from our lived experience. Just as surgery often leaves us scarred our transgression of God’s law often leaves a mark. It is a mark that will one day be erased, but it is a mark nonetheless.
The way of wisdom
The way of wisdom holds these two truths in tension. The way of the fool rushes to “its okay” or “you’re damned.” The good news is that there is time. Time to realize that a wrong deed needn’t be the end of the story. Time to experience the love of God extended in surgical grace that may leave a scar. Either way, time is of the essence.
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The importance of intellectual hospitality
Bart Ehrman wandered into the IVP Academic booth today.
Ten years ago the prospect of chatting to a scholar of Ehrman’s standing would have been overwhelming. I would have awkwardly asked if I could help him find a book or, better, looked at the carpet.
Two decades ago I would have felt awkward at having such a prominent critic of Christianity in my presence–was his lack of orthodox belief communicable?
As I’ve aged I’ve come to recognize that things are very rarely as they seem on the surface.
It’s not an absolute rule, but its at least true some of the time that those who doubt may be closer to the truth than those who parley the truth into a lucrative career in evangelicalism.
I’m not say this applies to Bart, but it may do and I have no way of knowing whether or not it does.
Christians must be generous to those with whom we disagree
If you’re not familiar with his body of work you really should be. Here’s how he’s described on wikipedia:
Bart Denton Ehrman (/bɑːrt
Educated in evangelical institutions (Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College) prior to graduate work at Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman has become a public intellectual whose work is critical of the received tradition.
He has been described as a terror to innocent evangelical undergraduates at UNC Chapel Hill. He tears at the shallow foundations of their received belief. His ‘radical’ and revisionist approach is part of his charm and much of his career. Iconoclasts always stand out.
At the same time he’s a nice guy.
We had a wonderful talk.
I mentioned that my wife is an Carolina alum and acquires in the area of Biblical studies. He asked when she graduated and how she got into publishing.
He seemed genuinely interested.
Then he said, “your [that is IVPs] academic books are your best ones.” It’s not a compliment precisely but it’s nice to know that he sees at least some marginal value in our publishing work.
It’s also not surprising that our books that posit Jesus as an object faith wouldn’t really be his thing.
By introducing myself to him and telling him that I value his work I wanted to extend a welcome to someone whose views are sharply different from my own.
The truth is, however, that without the challenge of scholar like Ehrman my own evangelical faith can easily become shallow and vapid, devoid of any serious intellectual content. One need only look at the best-selling Christian books to see this reality come to bear.