My Pragma Ran Over My Dogma

Back when I was one of approximately four people going to heaven, I used to knock on doors to let others know. I didn’t really care that much if they accepted what I had to say; I just knew that in addition to conforming to every “command, example, and necessary inference”¹ in the Bible, I also had to warn others of their impending doom.

There was just one problem with doing all of that – it wasn’t possible.

I was newly married, had a part time job in the eeaarly mornings, was a full-time student, and spent at least two hours every day knocking doors. All of that was in addition to attending church services three plus times per week. After eighteen months at that pace, I played out. I reached a place where even the fear of hell wasn’t enough to get me off the couch.

I still remember when Uriah called. I took the cordless phone (this was the early nineties) out to the carport, rested my elbow on the washing machine and my ear on the receiver.

“Hey,” he said, “I was reading in Colossians and I got to 1:27 that says, ‘the mystery hidden for the ages is Christ in you.’ That’s it! That’s what it’s all about.”

“Man, I just don’t have the energy to think about that right now,” was my reply.

He responded, “This doesn’t take energy; it gives it! There’s something different about me now, I mean, I can’t drive by someone on the side of the road without stopping to help them.”

“That sounds great,” I dismissed. “Can we talk about this later?”

In a few days, my guilt compounded enough to pry me from the couch and into the seat of Uriah’s 1970-something Mercury Monarch. I still remember sitting in front of Applegate Apartments, paralyzed by dread.

“Man, I don’t think I can do this today,” I confided to my compatriot.

“I’m telling you, the answer is, ‘Christ in you,’” he responded.

I didn’t know what that meant, but there, trapped between hell on earth and hell in… hell, I decided to imagine that Jesus Christ himself did, in fact, inhabit my body. My willingness or ability no longer mattered. My limp hand rose to the door latch and dropped to pull it forward. My elbow swung outward and with it the creaky metal door. I half-fell to my feet, a disoriented newborn unsure of which way to place his first steps.

Just then, a long-haired man who looked as though he’d abused his body in nearly every way possible, came out of his apartment and hobbled toward us. He was probably in his early thirties but looked every sweaty swollen inch in his late forties. We accosted him with some sort of “are you saved” opener.

“I went to hell one time,” he blathered. “It was weird. It’s like all your stuff and your money and stuff…they’re not worth anything…”

He obviously wasn’t in any state to receive our rationalist take on conformity to the rules of the New Testament. Previously, that fact would have moved me on to a more coherent subject, but for some reason, I put my hand on his shoulder. I offered to pray with him. I felt a compassion for this lost cause that I hadn’t felt for others.

As we disengaged with that guy and moved around the apartment complex, our message changed from warnings about neglected New Testament requirements to invitations to a relationship with Jesus. The obligation that had been sapping my strength transformed into an invigorating indulgence in Christ himself.

At one point I remember turning to Uriah and saying, “You know what? Suddenly I don’t care if someone wants to worship God with a piano.”²

“Me neither!” he exclaimed.

When divine mandate failed to budge me out of the car, “Christ in you” put me to dancing in the street. Our relationship with God had been based on dogma gleaned from an ancient text – demanding, demoralizing, dead. Now, we’d sampled a hit of resurrection power. Our “pragma” (that which we learned through practical experience) had begun to run over our dogma.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that we were completely free that day. It was just the beginning of a long journey to the powerful, primitive faith that I now offer to anyone who’ll accept it.

Old dogmas die hard. We didn’t care whether someone wanted to worship with instruments, but we still knew that represented the one true church. We talked less about doctrine and more about Jesus, but then we’d always get back to doctrine. Our minds remained calcified in convictions long set in doctrinal forms, but a living seed had been planted in the dirt between the cracks. It would take time for living experience to displace the hardened legalism that surrounded it.

For now, we channeled our new-found passion into the same old tactics. Once a door opened (literally and figuratively) we set out to delegitimize our victims’ previous religious experience. We’d show them our well-worn proof texts which made abundantly clear that Baptists had been baptized for the wrong reason, and Methodists had been baptized in the wrong way. We argued that if their church had been wrong on something so foundational that it must be the wrong church. They needed to join us in the one true church. After being baptized in the right way and for the right reason, of course.

Not long after having found “Christ in me,” we went door knocking again in the low-income neighborhood around those apartments where it all began. A kindly older lady in a cracker box house invited us in for coffee and condemnation. While we were working on her, a man who looked to be about ten years younger than she came to the door. He was apparently a friend and she invited him in as well. She made introductions all around and then said, “Hey Larry, these guys are here to talk about the Bible. I know you’re into that kind of stuff. Why don’t you talk with them?”

He agreed out of the side of his eyes, and we redirected our barrage at him.

I’ll never forget the serenity on his face as we hammered his claim on salvation.

When we called him to account for his dereliction of duty to the book we regularly violated, Larry would calmly respond, “You guys can say whatever you want. I know that I belong to Jesus.”

We scoffed at his subjective certainty, but we were also shaken by it. He could not measure up to our dogma, but we couldn’t measure up to his faith.

Then there was Shannon, a big guy who lived alone in a messy duplex. As he and I talked, we started comparing notes to discover that our experiences were almost identical. The longer the conversation went on, the more we found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences. We had a kinship that I didn’t have with anyone at the one true church, but Shannon insisted on remaining Catholic. I tried to help him bring his dogma in line, but he just didn’t feel the need.

The rift between us stretched through the middle of my worldview. If my experience had been authentically from God and Shannon had the same experience, then none of the doctrinal stuff mattered to God. But that would invalidate my exclusive claim on God. On the other hand, if my doctrinal formulas were correct, Shannon must have been deluded. If he had been deluded, I had no basis for confidence in my experience either. Shannon and I parted ways, but the tension continued to pull on my paradigm.

Eventually, I would discover that the whole problem had nothing to do with the Bible, but with my assumptions about it. Those assumptions had been given to me as axiomatic truth by the group to which I gave credence. The assumptions and not the Bible were my dogma. But that dogma didn’t hunt (southern reference). I mean it didn’t work.

It didn’t work practically. The New Testament when turned into a law is both too amorphous to master and too rigid to serve. The man who baptized me into the Church of Christ once described the Christian life as trying to hold a ball under water. “You push it down here and it pops up over there.”

So, you’re saying that Christianity consists of spending time and effort on a completely futile and frustrating endeavor? Sign me up!!!

At what point does a person chuck the ball out of the pool and say, “This game is stupid!”?

In addition to failing practically, my dogma also failed predictively. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, it failed to predict reality. If all those assumptions were true, then God couldn’t accept even one person like Larry or Shannon and yet it seemed that he had.

Before you write me off as a crackpot using his own experience to determine objective truth, could we look together at a biblical example of someone whose pragma ran over his dogma?

Peter was praying on the roof and he had this vision of a great sheet filled with all kinds of critters being lowered down out of heaven.

Then a voice said, “Get up Peter. Kill something and eat it.”

Peter’s response typifies the Biblicist approach to religion, “Not so, Lord, for nothing unclean has ever touched my lips.”

To which the Lord, responded, “Don’t call anything impure which God has made clean.”

For some reason, Peter needed to hear things three times  before he got them, so this cycle was repeated two more times.

A cynical synopsis of this narrative from Acts 10 could read as follows: “Christ appears to Peter and commands him to violate Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.”

As Gentile believers, we might not fully grasp the psychological turmoil into which this vision cast Peter. He whose name means “rock” had never wavered from his resolve to obey the Torah. Now, the Living Word expected him to violate the written word. I don’t know if I can even come up with a modern equivalent from New Testament practice. I suppose it would be like Jesus coming and telling us to replace the wine and bread on the Lord’s Supper table with Monster Energy drinks and churros. Even then, we Gentiles don’t grasp the importance of the food laws to the Jewish identity.

Speaking of Gentiles, Peter, directed by the Spirit, then went to the house of a Roman army officer named Cornelius to tell him the gospel. That, in and of itself, wasn’t scripturally wrong so much as it was a violation of traditional Jewish practice.

While Peter preached about Jesus, Cornelius with all of his friends and family began to speak in other languages and to prophesy by the power of the Holy Spirit. In response, Peter commanded that they all be baptized – that is, that they be visibly accepted into the covenant community.

That posed a problem. Peter allowed the uncircumcised Gentiles into the messianic community even though Genesis 17:9-12 declares that everyone, even foreigners, must be circumcised if they are going to belong to the Abrahamic covenant.

When Peter and his cohort returned to Jerusalem, they were called on the carpet for this action.

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” – Acts 11:1-3

In his defense, Peter recounted the whole story of how he had been called to go to Cornelius’ house to preach the gospel and how God’s pragma had run over his dogma:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” – Acts 11:15-18

It would seem from God’s dealing with Peter that he never meant for Scripture to hamper our interaction with him in a dynamic relationship. Christ could command Peter to violate the Torah and then the Holy Spirit could circumvent the covenant requirements he himself put into place.

But why would God do this?

Because no written code, even one given by God, could possibly apply to every circumstance or address every person. Scripture serves a purpose, but it’s very nature also makes it provisional.


Footnotes:

  1. In my strain of the Church of Christ, we used these three phrases to establish New Testament authority.
  2. The Church of Christ is known for shunning the use of instruments in their public assemblies. Here’s an  article for more on the belief.

The Bible Never Said, “Obey the Bible” — Introduction

The four of us rode together that Sunday morning. The closer we got to the little church house, the greater our anxiety rose until we finally had to pull over into a radiation therapy clinic to pray in the car before continuing on.

When we reached the church, the parking lot was empty. All of the lights were out and a “For Sale” sign was in the yard. We had driven that place out of business!

I had come into the Church of Christ after an existential crisis in my later teen years had sent me church shopping. Their mantras mesmerized me,

“We just want to follow the Bible.”

“Read the Bible for yourself.”

“Don’t take our word for what it says.”

“If you find something we’re doing that doesn’t line up with the Bible, we want to know so we can change.”*

I started reading the New Testament and couldn’t put it down. Very soon, I found some of those things they’d missed. I brought them to the attention of the minister, but he explained them away.

A few years later, I met Uriah who agreed with me, and together along with our reluctant wives, we pushed the envelope. Apparently, they didn’t really mean that part about changing to accommodate.*

Out of devotion to Christ we had committed to reading the New Testament and to doing what it said no matter what. No doubt many would consider that a noble aspiration. That is, until you get to passages like 1 Corinthian 11:2–16 which mandates that women cover their heads when they pray. After much study of this passage, Uriah and I became convinced that these instructions still applied. We were ready to go to the mat for that conviction.

We pushed our belief about the “head covering,” as we called it, on that little church until they had the preacher officially shut us up. Then, we wrote letters to each congregant saying that according to 1 Corinthians 5, Romans 16:17, and 2 Thessalonians 3, we were going to shun them until they repented. We hand delivered each letter along with a personal appeal for their repentance. Now, you see why they closed up shop.

I know all of that sounds pretty macabre to the average person — even the average Christian.

And yet, in principle we weren’t really so different from all the other “Bible believing” Christians in the world. We were just more consistent.

While almost no one outside of Alabama would agree with our conclusions on 1 Corinthians 11, Christians in America have debated the role of women in leadership for decades. The church has continued to straggle behind the national conscience on equal opportunity for women because certain passages in the New Testament seem to specify male leadership or limit female participation. Churches which continue to adhere to those passages alienate women and marginalize their message.

Even though more people agree with their position than with the one we were pushing, these “complementarians” claim to base their beliefs on the same standard Uriah and I used. The same New Testament (even the same epistle) that seems to prohibit female teachers in the Christian assembly also seems to teach that women should cover their heads.

Why don’t more “bible based” churches insist that women cover their heads when they pray? Could I suggest that the difference between the Southern Baptist Convention today and me in the early nineties has more to do with politics than with hermeneutics and more to do with democracy than with devotion to God?

Mainstream conservative denominations derive their doctrines from the same assumptions that Uriah and I used; their motives are just a bit more mixed. Since no text can be understood exactly the same by any two people, agreement among large groups suggests a preference for compromise over conviction. We were only four and no more because we were ready to follow the New Testament to the letter without deferral to human opinion or even to common sense.

My position on the head covering didn’t arise from personal misogyny or some sort of male power trip; it was pure, painful devotion. I was ready to do whatever the New Testament enjoined on me no matter how odd or difficult.

Here’s another vignette which I present to you as Exhibit B.

I still remember the day that I read Romans 13:1–2:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

I can’t remember where I went after reading that passage, but I’ll never forget the trip there. I always took a long backroad as a shortcut any time I traveled north from my house. I hadn’t previously paid attention to the 25 MPH sign. Now, it stood there with the prohibitive force of a command carved in a tablet of stone. Sweat beaded on my forehead as my white Rabbit idled along, nearly gobbled up by the truck bearing down on my bumper. When the speedometer needle would spasm over to 26, I’d utter a petition for forgiveness under my breath while glancing again at the angry grill in my rearview mirror.

I drove like that for years. Even as a UPS driver. Even in 5 MPH parking lots. So maddening was the pace, that my passengers would occasionally reach over to push down on my knee.

As ridiculous as my story sounds, wasn’t I just obeying the Bible? Read a little further down in Romans 13 to verse 6:

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Christians claim to follow the Bible, but we gasp when someone cheats on his taxes and laugh when he gets a speeding ticket. What’s the deal?

No doubt many will recoil at the idea that we’re not supposed to obey the Bible. Here’s a word of comfort for those folks: You already don’t obey the Bible. Nobody has. It’s not possible.

When Christians claim to follow the Bible, or churches predicate their authority on it, they’re just really being dishonest with others and themselves.

The Bible wasn’t written as a rule book. Attempting to treat it that way will result in confusion, hypocrisy, and division…oh wait, it already has.

In this series of articles, I will demonstrate that much of the church’s failure to accurately represent Christ to the watching world stems from its misunderstanding of the purpose of the Bible.

Crossing Over

This post isn’t for everyone.

It’s for the people who sense that something is wrong with this world.

It’s for those who grieve over the hurt they see around them and regret their part in it.

You’re right, there is something wrong and you’re a part of the problem.

You also need to know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Bible tells the story of what’s wrong with our society and it tells us how to cross over into a new society governed by trust and love.

First, here’s what went wrong:

Our original ancestors were given the opportunity to live in paradise. In paradise, they enjoyed perfect harmony with their environment and each other in God’s presence. At some point they chose selfish ambition over peace and intimacy.

They would now suffer an existence characterized by alienation from God and from each other.

As these early ancestors reproduced, their brokenness multiplied along with their progeny. In time, hate-filled and violent people would populate the earth.

Noah and His Family Crossed Over

Rather than allow continued degradation, God declared that he would destroy the evil society by means of a massive flood:

So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”  But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. (Genesis 6:7-8)

We’re not told why, but God selected Noah for special treatment while everyone else faced impending doom.

You’re probably familiar with the rest of the story. God instructed Noah to build a massive, water-tight wooden box which would hold male and female representatives of humankind and animals. Then a flood destroyed all life outside of the great wooden box. After the waters receded, all the inhabitants came out and repopulated the earth.

In the ark, Noah crossed over the waters into a new society.

Sadly, selfish ambition came off of the ark in the hearts of Noah and his family.

Abraham Crossed Over

As Noah’s family reproduced, his descendants formed a new evil society which the book of Genesis describes like this:

At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words. As the people migrated to the east, they found a plain in the land of Babylonia and settled there.
They began saying to each other, “Let’s make bricks and harden them with fire.” (In this region bricks were used instead of stone, and tar was used for mortar.) Then they said, “Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:1-4 NLT)

These people made selfish ambition a corporate enterprise. They came to realize that they were stronger together and came up with ways to cement their corporate identity. To establish permanence beyond their individual lifespans, they would build a great city. They also planned to memorialize themselves through an impressive achievement, the tower. These monuments to their corporate strength would also maintain it by keeping everyone together.

God disciplined these people for pulling together around selfish ambition. He confused their languages and scattering them to the four corners of the earth.

In the next chapter of Genesis, God calls a man to become the antithesis of Babylon’s arrogance:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1-3 NLT)

Abram was from a city called Ur which was located in the region of Babylonia. God called him to leave the corrupt society of his nativity to wander in an unknown land. To reach Canaan from Ur, Abraham had to cross over the Euphrates River. From then on, he and his descendants would be know as “Hebrews” which means, “the crossed over.”

Because he trusted God enough to cross over from dependency on humankind, God would give Abraham everything the people of Babylon had attempted to seize for themselves. In addition to that, God would use Abraham as a vehicle to bless everyone on earth.

Moses Crossed Over

After four hundred years, God’s promise to make Abraham’s descendants into a nation came true. The Hebrews, whom God had taken to develop in Egypt, multiplied into the hundreds of thousands. They were now a nation that would be known as Israel.

Fearing a revolt, the Egyptian king put the Hebrews under forced labor. In time, they called out to God who sent Moses to rescue them from slavery.

Through Moses, God inflicted a series of ten plagues on Egypt until the king let Israel leave his country. After they left Egypt, they wandered in the wilderness for a couple of weeks finally making camp next to the Red Sea.

Then the king, regretting the loss of his large slave labor force, marshalled his army and pursued them into the wilderness. When he caught up to them, the Israelites were terrified. God told Moses to lift his staff over the Red Sea and it parted. Israel walked through the sea on dry ground, but the Egyptians were all drown as God released the sea upon them in the midst of their pursuit.

From then on, Israel’s old masters had no control over them. They were free to serve the one true God and to depend on him for everything they needed. Moses and Israel crossed over the Red Sea from an evil society to a life of God’s guidance and provision in the wilderness.

Like with Noah’s family, selfish ambition came through the water with Israel. In time, they started to think just like the people of Babylon. They demanded that God give them a human king so they wouldn’t have to trust God to deliver them from their enemies. Throughout their history, they continued to reject God until he finally sent them back to Babylon as prisoners of war.

John the Baptist Crosses Over

Because of his promises to Abraham, God returned Israel to their own land after seventy years in Babylon.

Even though they had been through so much, Israel continued to chase selfish ambition. By the first century C.E., the leaders in Jerusalem had become puppet leaders for the Roman Empire. They talked about following the will of God, but they didn’t do it themselves. When push came to shove, those Israelite (now also known as Jewish) leaders would do anything to protect their grip on power.

At that time, God sent a man named John into the wilderness to speak a message of correction to Israel. He told them that they needed to change their ways because God was getting ready to come to them. The people who listened to John’s message were baptized by him in the Jordan River. This baptism was a crossing over from the compromised and corrupt religion of Jerusalem into a pure devotion to God.

Jesus Crosses Over

Though he was born to a virgin as the Son of God, Jesus lived an ordinary human life until he was around thirty years old. Then he went out to the Jordan to be baptized by John.

At first, John didn’t want to baptize Jesus because he knew that he didn’t have any sin to turn away from. Jesus urged John to comply, because it was God’s will for him to be baptized.

When Jesus came up from the water, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven called out, “This is my beloved Son. I’m pleased with him.” At his baptism, Jesus crossed over from carpenter (the trade he learned from his earthly father) to Christ (the calling given to him by his heavenly Father, God).

Jesus Christ went around teaching everyone and performing miracles. He called out the hypocrisy among influential religious people of his day. The respectable people hated him, but the outcasts loved him and followed him everywhere.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem, the religious leaders felt threatened by him. They schemed to have him executed by the Romans on a cross.

Jesus had told his disciples that this would happen. When Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, heard this prediction, he called Jesus aside and said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus responded harshly to his concerned friend, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” (Matthew 16:22-23)

At his death, Jesus crossed over in a way that nobody else had until that time. By submitting to a wrongful death, Jesus let go of all selfish ambition and trusted his life fully into God’s hands. He didn’t just cross over through water. He crossed through death.

Because of his obedient trust, his Father resurrected Jesus never to die again.

Jesus’ Followers Cross Over

Fifty days after Jesus rose again, the Holy Spirit came from heaven with a loud rushing wind onto 120 of his followers who were praying in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in languages which they hadn’t studied. People from all over the city gathered to hear them. Since it was a special holiday in Jerusalem, Jews were present from all over the Roman Empire. Everyone heard these followers telling about God’s wonderful deeds in their own native tongues and they were amazed.

Then, Peter stood up and told everyone how God had sent Jesus to be their perfect king, but they and their leaders had rejected him and had him crucified. Peter also told them that God had given proof that Jesus was the Son of God by raising him from death and by pouring out the Holy Spirit.

The people in the audience were crushed by this news and asked what they should do. Peter responded,

“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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call. Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” (Acts 2:38-39, 40b)

Peter called them to cross over, through baptism, from participation in their corrupt society to life led and empowered by God through the Holy Spirit.

This same invitation is open to you today.

Just like Noah and his family or Moses and the Israelites, God wants you to leave behind your way of life and cross through water to a life led and empowered by his Holy Spirit.

Unlike Noah’s family or the Israelites, you must leave your selfish ambition behind, because baptism in Jesus’ name requires that we trust God like Jesus did. That means we “die” to our desires, our dreams, our egos, to ourselves, so that we can live and, if so called, die for the will of God. We become spiritual Hebrews who’ve severed our unhealthy dependencies to wander as strangers in this world, listening only to our God and accepting the blessings he has promised.  

The ultimate among those blessings will be eternal life in a renewed earth filled with goodness and free from pain when Christ returns to judge the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Link

Growth Groups Questionnaire

Growth Groups Questionnaire

 

This tool, based on Neil Cole’s Life Transformation Groups, is designed to facilitate a one on one/one on two discipleship process.  As with LTG’s, participants gather for one hour per week to ask and answer the accountability questions.  At the meeting they agree upon a passage of Scripture to read on their own through the week.  Unlike LTG’s, Growth Groups require participants to make weekly commitments to pray, join Christ in his mission and to obey his Word through Scripture.  Because of this dynamic approach, we needed a means to update commitments on a weekly basis.  So, we created this online form.  Give it a try and see where it grows.  

Gospel

In 1 Cor. 15:3-6, Paul recounts his gospel.  Those who would participate in evangelizing the world, do well to consider this passage.  First, notice the brevity of Paul’s statement.  In just 25 words, Paul relates the crucial elements of the gospel – “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Notice also the repetition of the phrase, “according to the Scriptures.”  Paul didn’t expect blind faith in his assertions.  He took the trouble to point out the Old Testament allusions and prophecies pointing to Christ.  This approach commends the message as true when compared with other religions.  Take as an example a Muslim friend of mine.  Though he won’t admit it, he has worked hard to convert me.  In response I have challenged him by saying, “I can prove the gospel with only the Old Testament.  Can you prove the truth of the Qur’an with only the New Testament?”  His honest response was, “No, I can’t.”  A God who claims to live above time ought to be able to give us a heads up about what he’s going to do.  Not only so, but if the gospel is true then we ought to find passages in the Old Testament which make no sense apart from the fulfillment in Christ.  Isaiah 53 is such a passage.

Not only did Paul call the Scriptures to testify about his message, he also could point to a contemporary witness of these events – Peter, The Twelve, the 500, and then James.  One might say, “Okay, so that was good for Paul since many of these people were still alive in his day but what about us at the first part of the 21st century?”  The answer can be found in the final witness he listed, “Last of all to me.”  Because Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision, we can expect him to continue to express himself in various other ways – changed life stories, healings, dreams, and visions.  Everyone who has encountered the risen Christ has a story to tell.

So, to preach the gospel like Paul we should 1. succintly share the facts, 2. support them with Scripture, and 3. weave our own experience and that of others into an effective gospel presentation.  See my attempt at covering these elements below:

The world is a messed up place.  The Bible says that it’s messed up because people rebelled against their creator and did things that were wrong – they sinned.  God plans to fix the world but he must first deal with sin.  God’s messenger, Isaiah, foretold that God would send his Chosen One to die as punishment for sins, be buried and rise again to turn people away from living sinful lives.  700 years later Jesus Christ came and did what was foretold by dying on a cross for our sin and rising to life again.  I’ve accepted his death as payment for my wrongs. He’s set me free from the guilt and power of sin.  Now I’m looking forward to his return when he’ll fix this broken world where his people will live forever.

Pusher

I just came back from a meeting with my daughter and two of her friends.  They attend a charter school in the area.  I’ve been challenging and equipping them to reach their fellow students with the gospel.  Today they kind of pushed back and told me that their classmates are particularly hostile to people attempting “push their religion” on them.  Vocabulary means everything.  The phrase their friends use reveals a lot about their mindset.  They see Christianity or seemingly any faith system as something which can be thrust upon them.  That’s too bad.  As a follower of Christ I have no desire to make another person accept him.  In fact Jesus seems to have made it hard for people to follow him.  He doesn’t want the unwilling.  So, an authentic relationship with the risen Son of God by definition cannot be pushed on another person.

However, I am driven to do all I can to help as many people as possible come under the kingdom reign of Christ.  What drives me is the inner joy that I have received.  I don’t want to push my religion; I only want to share my joy.  I don’t believe people will suffer for eternity in hell so I have no need to issue a “turn or burn” ultimatum.  I just want to see people be saved, not from eternal damnation but from the brokenness plaguing them in this mortal coil.  Yes, I believe I have received eternal life but the word “eternal” is a qualitative as well as a quantitative modifier.  I’ve received a different way of living that will also never end.  Isn’t that worth sharing with everyone?

Hell? No!

I’ve had several conversations with atheists and agnostics regarding the existence of the God of the Bible. After all is said and very little done, their objections almost always come down to disbelief in a character who would create moral beings knowing they would sin and then cause them to suffer eternally for sinning. They say something like, “If such a being exists, he doesn’t deserve my allegiance let alone my love.” I have to admit they have a point.

That being said, I am a believer in the God of the Bible.  I will never apologize for the Being presented within the pages of Scripture.  I will in no way minimize his severity or avoid a discussion of his judgments.  I’m “all in” with God as revealed in holy writ.  Any other god does not deserve my allegiance let alone my love.

So, what are we to do with the doctrine of Hell?  Many Christian thinkers have struggled with this question.  C.S. Lewis expressed in his book, The Great Divorce, the belief that those in Hell lived in an environment which reflected the misery of their choosing and could at any time choose Heaven.  More recently Rob Bell mused in Love Wins that it’s likely that every created being will at some point accept the supremacy of Christ and be welcomed into the kingdom of God.  I understand the motivation behind these ideas but scriptural support for them is thin at best.  We mustn’t allow our personal disdain for a doctrine to push us into forging new ones.  For this reason, I disagree with these two men whom I otherwise respect.  The Bible teaches that Hell is a real place prepared for Satan and his angels and that those who fall under God’s wrath will be sent there as final judgment.  I do not, however, believe that God will cause anyone to suffer eternally.  I am under this conviction because that’s what I understand the Bible to teach.

In Matthew 10:28, after predicting that his followers would suffer persecution to the point of execution, he cautions, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Emphasis mine NAW)  The word translated, “hell” is gehenna which referred to the Hinnom Valley just outside of Jerusalem.  Gehenna was used as a garbage dump where trash was burned.  Jesus warned that God was not only able to destroy the body but also the soul in his celestial garbage dump, Hell.  Hell is not a place of eternal torture but an incinerator for the destruction of sin-spoiled souls.

Someone might protest, “But what about all those places in the New Testament which describe Hell as eternal?”  Good question.  Let’s look at a case in point.  Mark 9:47-48 says,

 “And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell,where

“‘the worms that eat them do not die,
and the fire is not quenched.’” (NIV 2011)

When he said this, Jesus was partially quoting Isaiah 66:22-24 –

“As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the Lord, “so will your name and descendants endure.  From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,” says the Lord.  “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” (NIV 2011)

So let me ask the question: Is this passage describing conscious people eternally suffering?

Jesus will return to judge all people who’ve ever lived.  Some will live forever in a new heavens and new earth.  Others will be cast into Hell where they will be completely destroyed as the Bible teaches.  So, pertaining to God’s justice, has he not the right to destroy what he has created?

I have much more I could say about this doctrine and what the Bible says about it it but I’ve got other things to do right now.  Maybe later.  For an exhaustive treatment of this topic, I suggest reading The Fire that Consumes by Edward Fudge.

Testimony

In Bill Hybels’ book, Just Walk Across the Room, he challenges his readers to write out their faith story in 100 words or less.  Here is my 105-word attempt:

As a young person I dreamed of growing up to become a doctor.  Then, I saw a “20/20” special on successful people who had attempted suicide.  Their reason: Once they had reached their goal in life, they still felt empty.  I projected myself into their shoes.  I thought, “If this is all there is then life is meaningless.”  So, I began reading the New Testament.  Within those pages I met a man who transcended the vanity of this mortal coil.  His name is Jesus.  He invited me to train under him and so to become like him.  I accepted and have never regretted that decision.

Mixed Motives and Methadone

I just read a blog from an atheist who took exception with street preachers who hung out in the pub district and offered aid to the revelers there.  He made some great points.  One of his problems with these folks was that they did good out of mixed motives.  They offered physical assistance to people in crisis but they also wanted to spread the gospel.  So my question is, “What’s wrong with that?”

Consider a non-profit organization whose goal is to help heroine addicts.  They open a methadone clinic hoping to attract addicts seeking relief from withdrawals.  At the clinic they also offer rehab services.  Should we fault them for having mixed motives?

As believers in Christ, we believe that humanity suffers from one problem, sin.  That disease manifests itself through a myriad of symptoms.  Whether we’re addressing symptoms or offering a cure the mission and the motive remain the same.