A Faith that Works – Chapter 2 Excerpt

A Faith That Works is an examination of the gospel as the tangible power of God to save. Many Christians would be hard pressed to articulate exactly in what way the gospel had affected them. The absence of demonstrable change has become so prevalent that we’ve actually found a biblical basis to explain it. This excerpt from what may or may not be chapter 2 of the book dismantles that basis to make way for the legitimate work of God.

I can think of no better evidence to support my case that the gospel of the western church has been rendered inert through mishandling than the prevalence of the belief that Paul meant to describe the normal Christian life in Romans 7. I can’t count the number of times a Christian has told me something like, “Yeah, we’re forgiven by grace but we’re still going to sin every day. I know I’m not as strong as Paul and he had things he couldn’t get over either. Just look at Romans 7.”

Really? Is that the best that the power of God can do? If faith in Christ left Paul “dead” and “wretched,” then what in the “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” did it do for him!?

Far from commiserating with faltering disciples, Paul wrote Romans 7 to depict the state of existence that the gospel saved him from. Through his attempts to conform to an external standard of righteousness, he became as “dead in transgressions and sins” as the pagan recipients of the Ephesian letter had been.

Compare the description from Ephesians 2:1-3 of their pre Christian state with his condition described in Romans 7:

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been dead in sin.
○ “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” (Eph. 2:1)
○ “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Rom. 7:9-10)

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been in bondage to evil desires.
○ “…in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph. 2:2-3a)
○ “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:14-15)

● Paul and the Ephesians both had natures that were hostile to God.
○ “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3b)
○ “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)

If we agree that Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the lost state and then say that Romans 7 describes the common Christian experience, then we imply that the gospel produces no significant practical results. If we’ve come to identify a Romans 7 experience as the result of the gospel, then it’s no wonder there’s so little difference between the lives of Christians and nonbelievers. No wonder so few churchgoers evangelize. No wonder so many kids raised in church leave the faith.

Wee Little Man

We’re told that Donald Trump is a “baby Christian” and that we should not judge him. A person needn’t have a particular understanding of “Christianese” nor must they attain some sort of religious performance before I’ll acknowledge them as a brother in Christ. We are all in process. And yet I can’t accept that Donald Trump is a Christian for the simple reason that he has never disavowed his former life. In other words, I see no evidence of repentance from him. Ezekiel gives a hallmark of those who are born again:  

Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices. – Ezekiel 36:31

For comparison, let’s consider another wealthy, scandalous man. Perhaps you remember Zacchaeus from Luke 19. He was a rich man who had acquired his wealth by betraying his own people to the Roman Empire as a publican. Those who held this office were hated not only because of their disloyalty to the people to God but also because they used their protected status to extort additional funds from the populace for their own personal benefit. Zacchaeus had gotten rich on the backs of honest hard working citizens and everybody knew it. But Jesus didn’t scorn and exclude him like the rest of the Jewish people in Jericho had. Instead, Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. Zacchaeus gladly welcomed him. 

Christ’s willingness to share a meal with Zacchaeus wasn’t an affirmation that the man was saved, though. Instead, it was an invitation to repentance. Zacchaeus understood and responded with these words, 

 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” -Luke 19:8

This is what repentance looks like. In the presence of Christ, Zacchaeus saw his greed as the soul destroying disease it had been and he came to loathe himself for it. He couldn’t remain the same. Christ saw this change of heart and declared that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ household. Zacchaeus was saved before he did anything, but not before he repented. One might say that our love for sin is the very thing we need saving from and that coming to loathe ourselves for our sin is the very essence of salvation. By this definition, can we say that Donald Trump is saved? 

You might be voting for him because of his professed stance on a particular issue, but please don’t fall under the delusion that his man represents Christ in any way. I don’t mean to be judgmental. I’m just concerned that some religious leaders’ attempts to baptize his reputation will further water down what it means to be a “Christian.” 

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.

Strategic Planning

I just reblogged a post on Islamophobia.  I agree with the facts related in the post and with the contention that many people fail to call out the misdeeds of Muslims out of fear of backlash or worse.  However, I would not say that Islam is ultimately to blame for the evils committed by some Muslims around the world.  Islam just provides a convenient palate upon which the sinful hearts of humans mix the blood-red hues of their hatred.  Other convenient ideologies have been churchianity, Communism (rational atheism applied), nationalism, and racism to name a few. For the real issue check this sermon I delivered on November 11th.

Strategic Planning

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.

One Rule

When discussing morality and ethics, atheists are wont to say that they are actually more moral than theists because they do what is right because it is right, not out of fear of punishment or hope for a reward. While I will grant that higher morality transcends personal interest, I take exception with anyone, atheist or Christian, who depicts Christian morality in terms of rules enforced through threat or bribe.

The New Testament presents but one rule to govern the lives of Christ’s constituents.  The various biblical writers express it in different ways.  Here is my favorite expression of the one rule:

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.  Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:15-16 NIV)

The problem with the “right for the sake of right” ethical formula is that it requires every adherent to be “right.”  Sadly, we’re not all right.  Many of us are very broken.  Sitting here right now I can’t think of anyone who has done wrong because it is wrong.  That being the case, how on earth could we ever expect that humans would ever on a large scale do what is right because it is right? 

Since we can’t count on others to do right, we’ll need to limit human behaviors through laws enforced by duly appointed officials.  Which means that people will do right because they fear punishment.  On an interpersonal level, we’ll need social norms and societal approval or censure to bring people into conformity.  In other words, humans will do what is acceptable in order to be accepted and not rejected – in order to gain reward or avoid punishment. 

Who can deny that these forces inhibit genuine individual liberty?  Given this complex set of incentives, who can claim high morality?  I submit that only genuine Christians are truly free and therefore truly moral.  They have been remade in the image of God demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ.    In Christ ,doing and being have become one.  We have become whole.  Our behavior is driven by our inner life.  When human laws or expectation coincide with right we transcend those motives.  When they conflict, we defy them.  Followers of Christ observe the one rule, “the new creation.”