Monthly Archives: February 2015

No, My Friends, Christianity is Not for Everyone

We’ve heard it said so often that it has become utterly vacuous: “Christianity is for everyone!” “Everyone is welcome!” “Come just as you are!” That’s the way it works with well-worn phrases and catchy sentences. Remove them from their original contexts that gave them precision, repeat them year after year, and they become empty vessels to be filled with meanings subtly or even dramatically different from their original import. Spoken in a culture that celebrates tolerance above virtue, that prefers feeling good to being good, and that favors image over reality, the expression, “Christianity is for everyone,” will be interpreted to mean “Everyone is okay just the way they are.” So, in this post I want to say, “No, my friends, Christianity is not for everyone.”

Christianity is not for the proud, those who will not admit that they are weak and dependent beings, mortal and needy and empty. It’s not for the unrepentant. If you intend to pursue a life of lust or greed or cruelty, if you don’t need forgiveness or renewal, if you are well and don’t need a doctor, Christianity is not for you. If you have no love for God or human beings, if you have no interest in prayer or acts of mercy, if you have no desire to worship God or serve humanity, you won’t find Christianity appealing. It’s not for the satisfied. If you are completely content with the world, if you have no ambition beyond physical pleasure, wealth, possessions, and fame, Christianity aims too high for you. So, I say it again, “No, my friends, Christianity is not for everyone.”

Christianity is for the weak and broken. It’s for those who know they are dying and need healing, mercy, and grace. Christianity is for the humble, for those who morn their sins and long for a pure heart and a clean conscience. Christianity is for those who thirst for God, for those who long for a glimpse of glory. It is for those not satisfied with what the world has to offer, for those compelled to aim higher. It’s for those for whom “the good life” is not good enough and only eternal life will do. I must say it yet again, “No, my friends, Christianity is not for everyone.”

What do these thoughts have to do with apologetics or a defense of Christianity? Much, I think, much indeed. Why should anyone be interested in a “Christianity” that offers nothing but bland assurances that we are fine just the way we are? How can you argue for Christianity’s truth about other matters if it doesn’t even tell you the truth about the human condition? Who needs a doctor that won’t tell you the truth about your illness because he lacks the skill to heal you! True Christianity pierces down to the heart of the human problem: we are finite, mortal, imperfect, corrupt, ignorant, blind, selfish, and unhappy beings. Christianity speaks the harsh truth about what we are, who we’ve become, and where we stand. And the remedy it offers is just as radical as the diagnoses it makes. We need forgiving, recreating, and resurrecting. We have to change, die, and become new people. Who can renew and perfect the creation? Who can forgive sin and overcome its power? Who can save from the annihilation of death? Who can cleanse the conscience of its guilt and empower the will to choose the good? Who can fill the human heart with faith, hope, and love? God and God alone can accomplish these things.

Christianity is not cheap like water but costly like blood. It offers not pleasant reassurances but disturbing truths. It aims not to anesthetize the conscience but cleanse it. It tells us what we know deep in our hearts: we are not okay just the way we are. No, my friends, Christianity is not for everyone.

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From Evidences to Apologetics

Today I will begin a new phase of the series on the question, “Is Christianity True?” For the first 29 essays I’ve presented an affirmative case for making a reasonable judgment for Christianity’s truth and a responsible decision to become a Christian. Much more could be said in making this case—and I might insert more arguments as we move forward—but for now I want to deal with some misunderstandings and objections to Christianity. The positive side of the argument is often called “Christian Evidences” and defensive side is often called “Christian Apologetics” or “Defense of Christianity.” The necessity of the defensive phase of the argument rests first in propensity of people to misunderstand what Christianity actually is and what it really teaches. How can we make a reasonable judgment or a responsible decision about Christianity unless we possess an accurate understanding of its teachings? Some people find certain versions of Christianity incredible or morally offensive or insufferably superficial, and hence hesitate to accept them. Others adopt a form of Christianity that is defective when compared to the original form taught by Jesus and the apostles. It’s questionable whether one has really rejected or accepted Christianity if the form they know is not the real thing.

The second reason for the pursuing the defensive phase of the argument arises from the barrage of objections that non-believers hurl against the proposition of Christianity’s truth. Some raise objections to the existence of God or to theism or to divine revelation. They raise the problem of evil or assert that the world needs no explanation beyond itself. Others object to the moral teachings of the Bible or deny its historical accuracy. Some offer objections to the reliability of the apostolic witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, or they object to the very possibility of miracles. The list is endless. And even if one thinks the case I made in the first phase of the argument is very strong, one may still be disturbed and caused to doubt by the many objections that are raised. Hence I want to reply to some of the most potent objections. Some of these objections may turn out to be based on misunderstandings of Christianity. But some may accurately represent Christianity and yet still find reasons to doubt or reject it.

I don’t have a particular order in mind in which to address misunderstandings and objections to Christianity. I will deal with them as they come to me.

I will post the first installment in this new phase immediately. Its title is: “No, My Friends, Christianity is Not for Everyone”

The Decision That Makes A Thousand Unanswered Questions Superfluous (Or At Least Not So Urgent)

In this 29th installment of our series “Is Christianity True?” we transition to a place from which we view this question at a very different angle. When one comes to believe and wholeheartedly embraces the apostles’ testimony to the resurrection of Jesus Christ one must ask the question asked by Peter’s audience on the day of Pentecost: “Brothers, what shall we do?” Theoretically, one could come to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead but retain the same way of life as before. But Peter’s listeners realized that God’s act of raising Jesus placed them at a crossroads of decision, because they had cooperated with their leaders in handing Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified. Peter replied to their plea, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Hence, according to Peter, coming to believe the apostolic testimony to Jesus demands a decisive act of will, that is, to repent and submit to baptism. Repentance is a change of mind and direction. It renounces the past and turns toward a new way of life. In submitting to baptism we admit that we cannot wash away our guilt by ourselves. Only God can forgive sins. In baptism in Jesus’ name we submit to God and trust him to wash away our sins. Just as water washes away dirt from the body, the Holy Spirit washes away guilt from the soul. In baptism we see three actors, a repentant sinner asks for the washing, the baptizer (or the church), who represents Jesus, and the Spirit. In baptism, the Spirit comes to stay and empowers the life that flows out of faith, repentance, and baptism. Apart from the grace of the Holy Spirit, repentance is just a fickle human resolution and baptism is just a bath. But because of the grace of the Spirit we can mark the event of our baptism as the beginning of a new life. And that new life is accompanied by a new community and a new ethics. Consider the Acts of Apostles’ description of the new community that resulted from Pentecost:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).

Though these verses do not provide a complete theology of the Christian life, they do picture the transition into new community and a new way of life. (1) As verse 42 makes clear, this community devoted itself to learning from the apostles. What did the apostles teach them? Surely they taught them the full story of Jesus and everything Jesus taught. They taught them about the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. (2) They devoted themselves also to fellowship or koinonia with fellow believers. They wanted to be together to share in this new life. Christianity is not a personal philosophy one can adopt individualistically. It is a comprehensive way of living, and hence, since human beings cannot live a full life alone, it takes shape in a community that corresponds to its vision of life. (3) They broke bread together; that is, they shared meals together, which most likely were modeled after the supper of the Lord. They would have begun by breaking and sharing bread and ended by drinking the cup of wine. The meal reminded them of the new covenant in the body and blood of Jesus and of the great banquet in the coming kingdom of God. (4) They prayed. This community lives in the presence of God and relies on the love of God, the grace of Jesus, and the power of the Spirit.

How does the question “Is Christianity true?” look after the transition into the community of faith though repentance and baptism? First, there is still much to learn. Those first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” There are many questions to ask about doctrine and ethics. Misunderstandings are common. Debates occurred and continue to occur among Christians about the proper church order, the exact nature of the atonement, predestination, the sacraments, and many others. But perfect understanding is not necessary before one begins the Christian life. And second, Christians find themselves questioned by outsiders, by atheists, by adherents of other religions, by deists, by adherents of heresies, by pantheists, by critics of miracles, by doubters, and skeptics, and many more. We are challenged on hundreds of points concerning the historical accuracy, philosophical cogency, and ethical acceptability of the Bible’s teaching. And the problem of evil is always on the lips of the outside objector. Nevertheless, since we have already accepted and wholeheartedly embraced the resurrection faith and the authority of the apostles for explaining the meaning of that faith and since we have experienced the grace of God and power of the Spirit and entered into the life of the community, we need not be disturbed by these questions and challenges as if one of these objections might destroy our faith in Jesus Christ. Since we made a reasonable judgment and a responsible decision to become Christians, we need not feel jerked around by every objection. And we are not waiting for a solution to all these problems before we can live our Christian lives with confidence.

What About the Bible? An Autobiographical Reflection

What about the Bible? Is the Bible true? Is it historically accurate? Is it a revelation from God? We often hear such questions in popular forums and in the media. And in almost every case we would be mistaken to take such questions seriously. As I have argued in previous posts, the Bible’s authority does not become an issue for us until we accept the testimony of the apostles to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do not accept the truth of the resurrection because the Bible says so. Instead, we become interested in what the Bible says about other matters when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. Today I want to look at the question of the Bible autobiographically.

Let’s look at how the question of the Bible arises for a person born into a Christian family and surrounded by a Christian culture. I shall speak from my own experience. My experience of the Bible was always that of an insider. It was our book. Though I don’t remember the word being used, it was the unquestioned authority for church life, morals, and for knowledge of God and Jesus Christ. I loved to hear stories of the Old Testament heroes of faith and the New Testament stories about Jesus, Paul, and Peter. The Bible provided texts for the preacher’s sermons. My parents owned several copies of the Bible, which were displayed on the coffee table and night stands. At an early age I received my own copy of a King James Bible with my name inscribed inside. I came to understand that reading the Bible was a religious duty, a discipline that should be maintained for a lifetime. Memorizing important texts and in depth study was also encouraged. Religious education was identical with Bible education. And the most admired preachers were those reputed to have the most extensive knowledge of the Bible. William Chillingworth’s (1602-1644) famous declaration that “The Bible alone is the religion of Protestants” certainly describes the religion of the church and family of my youth.

At some point, in my late teens I think, I discovered that there were outsiders whose view of the Bible differed dramatically from ours. I say “ours” because I had accepted the church’s understanding of the Bible without question. That is what my parents taught me, it was the belief of all the good people at church and the ministers, and it was reinforced by the consensus of Southern (American) culture. Ironically, my first encounters with external critics and doubters of the Bible were facilitated by teachers and books that wished to defend the church’s view of the Bible. They wanted to reinforce my faith that the Bible is indeed worthy of the respect given it by the church. My teachers realized that an inherited and naïve faith in the Bible had to become a reasonable faith or it would not be able to withstand the scrutiny it was sure to receive from critics. I think their intuition in this matter was correct: an inherited faith must transition to chosen faith.

But I believe they were mistaken to attempt to demonstrate apart from faith that the Bible deserved the respect that the church had traditionally given it. It is impossible to prove that the Bible deserves to be treated as the sole authority for knowledge of God, morality, and religion by arguing from its visible characteristics to its divine origin, historical reliability, and moral superiority. The Bible is a huge book, or actually, a huge collection of 66 books. It spans fifteen centuries and crosses many very different cultures. It recounts thousands of events for which we have no other sources and no independent way to confirm. It contains many writings for which we know neither the authors nor even the century in which they were written. No matter how many of the Bible’s marvelous characteristics we uncover we can never get close to proving that the Bible deserves the respect given it by the church. And the unhappy by-product of this effort to prove the Bible is creating doubt in the hearts of the very people these arguments are designed to help. We are courting disaster if we convince young people that they must transition from an inherited and naïve faith to a chosen and reasonable one but lead them to believe that in order to be reasonable their acceptance of the Bible’s religious authority must be based on rational arguments for the Bible’s perfection. Such a strategy distracts from the real decision of faith and may exile them to years of wandering in the desert of doubt and indecision. I know this from experience.

Hence in my view, apologists for the Christian faith should resist answering directly the questions with which I began this essay: Is the Bible true? Is it historically accurate? Is it a revelation from God? Why? Because no definitive answers can be given. Any answer will raise as many questions as it answers, and it will provoke endless counter arguments and follow-up questions. The only path forward is the one I charted in earlier posts. We must decide—apart from any view of the authority of the Bible—whether or not to accept the apostolic testimony to Jesus resurrection. Yours, mine, and the whole church’s respect for the Bible’s authority rightly flows from this decision and from nowhere else. But as I hope to show in future posts, the church’s respect for the Bible has not been misplaced; it really does flow from this decision. And neither was my trust in my parents and the church of my childhood misplaced.

Christ and Chaos: Making Sense of Christianity’s Many Teachings

Accepting the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus is the first step into Christian faith. As I emphasized in previous posts, this is a huge leap, a revolution that changes the direction of our lives, places them on a new foundation, and initiates a life-long journey of learning and practice. However, as anyone with more than a superficial acquaintance with Christianity knows, Christianity involves more than belief in the resurrection. And our series asks the question, “Is Christianity true?” not merely “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” How shall we continue our progress toward answering the more comprehensive question of Christianity’s truth? Is there a logical order in which we can best assess the truth of Christianity’s many teachings from this point onward?

The first rule I wish to lay down is this: in our examination of Christianity’s teachings we should never think independently of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus. In some way—to be specified later—each Christian teaching needs to be related to the resurrection faith. This rule is of supreme importance. Only in this way can we root the full spectrum of Christian teaching in the thing to which we have the most direct access, that is, an historical event to which we have access by faith, a faith that is our own act of trust and commitment. In so far as we can see the connection between our basic act of faith in Jesus and Christianity’s other teachings, their meaning, truth, and relevance to life will come to light. We can embrace them and hold them with greater confidence and practice them with greater joy. They will no longer appear to us as disconnected and arbitrary teachings that we are supposed to believe because we can see that the Bible says so or because the church says the Bible says so. A set of arbitrary and disconnected beliefs cannot possibly illuminate our minds, focus our attention, transform our affections, and order our lives toward the fullest experience of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. At best, we can hold them verbally and practice them legalistically.

From the perspective of the resurrection faith, Christianity’s other teachings fall into two broad classes: (1) beliefs that are closely associated with the resurrection itself or that are clearly implied by the event of the resurrection and can be readily inferred from it. In previous posts, I dealt in a general way with this first class of beliefs. The resurrection event took place in a context that gives it significance far beyond its status as mere miracle. I noted three components of that context: “(1) the life of Jesus as experienced and remembered by his disciples; (2) contemporary speculations, beliefs, and hopes surrounding death and resurrection and beliefs about God’s historical plan for defeating evil and saving his people; and (3) the impact of the resurrection appearances themselves.” Included in this class of beliefs are: Jesus Christ is the Revealer of the character, identity, and will of God, Jesus is the Revealer of the true human relationship to God, Jesus is Savior and Lord, and Jesus is the long-expected Messiah. Furthermore, it does not take a long trail of reasoning to see that by raising Jesus from the dead, God approved and validated Jesus’ moral and religious teachings as possessing divine authority and perhaps above all that God overturned the death sentence passed on Jesus and pronounced him innocent of the charges Jews and Gentiles urged against him. Hence the resurrection transformed the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus from a human act of failure and judicial murder into a divine act of self-sacrifice and triumph.

(2) The second class of Christian beliefs is less obviously implied within the event of the resurrection but was nevertheless taught by the apostles. As I noted in the previous two posts, our trust and love for the apostles leads us to believe their witness to the resurrection. In this act of faith we acknowledge our dependence on them for what we know about Jesus. We acknowledge that our relationship to them will always be as students to teachers. This relationship cannot be reversed. We want them to tell us everything they know about Jesus and every nuance of their understanding of his death and resurrection and reign as Lord. We need them to help us understand what it means to live on the basis of these truths.

We can see how some of what they teach follows readily from the resurrection event itself. We can even think along with them as they come to these realizations. These teachings fall into the first class (1) discussed above. But how some of their teachings are related to the resurrection event is less obvious. We have to study and think hard in order to grasp how their teachings make the connection to the resurrection. It is harder to think along with them from the resurrection itself to the particular teaching in question. As an example of a doctrine with a less obvious connection to the resurrection, consider the teaching that Jesus preexisted his earthly life as the eternal Word through whom God created the world. And the line of development gets even more obscure when we consider doctrines that received their definitive formulation beyond the New Testament era. Perhaps, the doctrine of the Trinity is the best example from this group.

In future posts, we will examine some of the most important teachings that lie close to the heart of Christianity. As we look at these teachings I will keep in mind the purpose of the series, which is to address the question “Is Christianity True?” I am not writing a catechism, that is, series of instructions on what the church teaches. I am asking about the truth of these teachings. Can we reasonably and responsibility accept them as true? This limit is why we must show the connection of each core Christian doctrine to the resurrection; for the resurrection is the decisive event. If a teaching follows from the resurrection, it warrants our acceptance.

Next week perhaps we ought to reflect further on the place of the Bible in Christianity. The question of the place and authority of the Bible must also be subject to the supreme rule I enunciated above: “in our examination of Christianity’s teachings we should never think independently of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus.”