No, That’s Not Christianity: Part 3
If the entire biblical narrative had to be summed up in one scene, one concept, one tidy parable that boiled everything down to its purest, most vital essence, it would be the picture of Billy Batson shouting the name “Shazam!” to summon that bolt of mystical lightning to transform the orphaned child into a perfected, indestructible man with the powers of the gods, anointed to go forth and crush the forces of evil that are menacing the world.
Or, we could swap that out for any of a number of other identically patterned stories, like the crippled Dr. Donald Blake who, upon striking his Mjolnir-in-disguise walking cane to the earth, is likewise engulfed in mystical lightning that transfigures him into the mighty god of thunder (this was the original, 1962 version of Marvel Comics’ Thor, to which the movie gave only a subtle nod). Or it could be Aang the last airbender summoning the power of the avatar-state in his moment of greatest need, to vanquish the evil empire subjugating the world. There’s even some “Transformers” lore that fits this pattern.
And, yes – I know how this looks. If you haven’t been turned off by the apparent silliness of my seemingly juvenile premise, you might be rolling your eyes just the same, wondering where this is going and if you should bother reading on. I hope you’ll bear in mind, though, that it is the stone the builders rejected that becomes the chief cornerstone, and give me the benefit of the doubt.
That said, it should be noted that these are parables, not, say, documentaries – these are not here presented as literal depictions of the gospel, but as long as we account for the nature of parables as such and translate accordingly, this motif is a dead-on accurate representation of genuine Christianity.
And, we need such a parable.
Stories are the souls of civilizations – the vehicles by which societies and communities collectively understand and communicate their shared values and cultural identities, and to pass these on to the next generation. If you control the stories, you control the civilization, which is why, for all of human history until about five minutes ago, it was the shamans, seers, priests, prophets and other religious functionaries who filled the role of “storyteller” in any given society.
Theoretically, as Christians, we have such a story, and it is a true story. Our very reason for existence as the Church is to live within that story, to live it out, and to remake ourselves and the world around us according to it.
But we don’t understand it. We’ve lost the plot.
We think we know it, and that assumed familiarity has bred a general contempt for Christianity within our broader culture. Even Christians collectively treat it with a casual boredom and routine disregard when we claim to believe it, and even when we believe that we believe it. Consequently, the Church has no real sense of itself and its own purpose and mission, and so it is crippled with a pervasive indolence, vapidity and vacuousness as it lapses into deeper and deeper depths of irrelevance and negated influence upon our culture, while others control the stories and steer our civilization into depravity and darkness.
Our apathy and impotence do not change the fact, however, that we are at war. It just means we’re losing, as anyone with a television or an internet connection can plainly see.
Meanwhile, the so-called “secular” culture is teeming with echoes and iterations and multimillion-dollar franchises modeled after our story, full of messiahs and heroes clothed with power from on high. And, our ideological adversaries have used stories to great effect – also appropriating elements of our story for their perverse ends. Atheists, acolytes of Critical Race Theory, LGBT ideology and other so-called “Progressives” often frame their “coming out” and “deconversion” experiences and the like in terms of “spiritual rebirth” and “awakening,” offering within their movements the kinds of rites of passage and initiatory rituals that are typically the domain of religion. And, indeed, these are rival religions to Christianity, and they are in ascendancy while our influence and numbers dwindle.
It’s not because they’re so effective in their use of stories and appropriation of religious concepts – although they are quite effective. It’s because of the vacuum left by the Church. If the Church would awaken and rise up and retake our rightful position of centrality and influence within Western civilization, they wouldn’t have the power that they do in our culture, and there wouldn’t be such a widespread unmet hunger for meaning and purpose that people would be drawn in by them.
The Church is not failing, however, because we haven’t made effective use of our story … although, we haven’t.
It’s because we have the wrong story.
The Bible simply does not teach what is commonly offered as “Christianity,” which is why Part 1 of this article was an overview of the true narrative, albeit immensely abbreviated. We have a collection of doctrines that we hold out as the nuts and bolts of the gospel, but we teach those doctrines within the framework of a narrative that is nowhere to be found in the Bible.
The Divine Council worldview isn’t necessarily a requirement to a correct understanding of those doctrines. It certainly helps a great deal. But, the real obstacle is the aforementioned false familiarity and the institutional baggage that comes with it. We think we understand these concepts, and so we are inoculated against learning about them. Even when we accept corrections on particular points of doctrine, those changes rarely impact our overall perspective.
We need an overhaul. We need to read and understand the Bible anew, through a new paradigm – which is really just the old paradigm restored. And, my hope is that by seeing how wildly different the actual biblical narrative is from the familiar, comfortable, boring and false version we all know, we’ll be shaken out of our complacency and reevaluate our beliefs.
The Lightning of Rebirth
In the 1st century, just after the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Church was born of virtually the same kind of miraculous transformation pictured in those stories when the first believers, by invoking the sacred name of the risen Messiah, were suddenly enveloped in a violent wind and fire from heaven fell upon them, imbuing them with power from on high as they were regenerated by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who was a seed, a deposit/down-payment, guaranteeing an eventual physical transformation more spectacular, even, than anything seen in our wildest heroic fantasies.
Their “speaking in tongues” was the antithesis and reversal of the Tower of Babel incident, in which the confusion of language was reversed so that God could reclaim the nations He previously disinherited. Likewise, this transformation through divine power was the antithesis of the sin of the Watchers: just as humanity was once corrupted by the mixing of human and divine natures, this was the beginning of humanity’s redemption through the union of human and Divine Nature.
As individual believers today, we don’t typically undergo quite the same “lightning bolt” experience as they did, but we are the recipients of the same reality. In the previous installment in this series, we discussed the epistemological basis for belief in Christ and Christianity: we don’t believe the resurrection because we have faith. We have faith because we believe the resurrection, on the basis of evidence and reason. With that foundation for a genuine, rational faith, we are initiated into that same transformational fire from on high – “grafted into the olive tree,” so to speak – through baptism, which is a vicarious enactment of the death and resurrection of Jesus, on the basis of which we receive the divine nature. Baptism gives us an immersive, tactile, sensory analogue to being lowered in death and raised to life again, as he was, and having undergone that vicarious reenactment, we carry the experience of it as a sort of internal monument, an experiential touchstone, and thereby know, on His promise, that we are transformed.
And we should think of it in the same terms as those aforementioned heroic metamorphoses: we are impotent and mortal in ourselves, but we invoke the name of the risen Messiah, who died for our sins and rose again, and so God answers by sending us the Power from on high, and so we are reborn through the Spirit of God, who fills and transforms us and bestows all of the nature and – yes – power of Christ himself, and now God is our Father and we are His children, bearing His likeness and nature.
As it turns out, the “lighting of transformation” parable is much closer to being literal than not. There’s no actual lightning, nor visible or outward metamorphosis (yet), and we can’t actually bench-press mountains (besides figuratively) or fly (just yet), but beneath the superficial and ultimately useless cosmetic differences, the reality is the same, yet … infinitely greater. We don’t get the powers of the gods. We get something better – something for which the gods themselves are bitterly jealous: the very nature of God Himself. The parable, as it turns out, is a shoddier, albeit superficially flashier knock-off of the greater reality. If the parable was literally true, it would be an inconceivably inferior downgrade from what we actually get.
Of course, none of this is so shockingly different from what is already basically familiar to regular churchgoers, so maybe this feels like a let-down after all that preparation to be shaken from our complacency.
So, here is the exciting twist: there is one feature that these parables get right and that the mainstream, market-standard version of Christianity always and unfailingly gets wrong, and it’s crucial to the whole thing.
Just like in those stories, not just anybody can invoke the Name and summon the lightning. It is conditional, and if you don’t meet the all-important condition, you will not be answered. God simply will not listen to you.
You have to be worthy.
And we – collectively, as the Church – are unworthy.
Abandon the Wide Path
Of course, I can hear the howls of outrage and apoplectic bellows of “Heresy!” and “False gospel!” even as I type this.
This, of course, is not what you’ve been told, and all Christians everywhere are conditioned to respond to what I’ve just said with immediate offense and swift condemnation. It is constantly drummed into us from the pulpit that our favor with God has absolutely nothing to do with our personal merit or worthiness.
But just think of everything you’ve been told that, as it turns out, is spectacularly wrong.
You weren’t told about the Divine Council. Instead, you were taught to deny the existence of such beings as a matter of doctrinal fidelity and loyalty to God.
You were told that it’s all about going to heaven as a disembodied spirit when you die. There isn’t a single word in the Bible about that, though. Instead, it’s all about heaven coming here, to earth, where we are physically raised from the dead.
It is commonly taught that regeneration precedes faith. But, once again, the Bible teaches the precise opposite: faith always precedes and is the condition of regeneration.
Those are just the tip of the iceberg of popular teachings that seem to have the ring of truth to them because they make use of recognizable biblical terminology, but reverse the order or redefine terms, and so wind up negating the true biblical teaching.
We read in Scripture that our faith in God on the basis of our belief in the resurrection effects the transformation we’ve been talking about. Typically, we understand this to work because Jesus’ resurrection is the proof and promise of our own – it is the foundation and catalyst for our faith.
That is absolutely certainly true, but that’s just the beginning, and it goes far, far beyond that.
But, we gloss over it because the conditioned presuppositions we bring to the Bible make us directly antagonistic to much of its actual teachings. All of those reversals, negations and redefinitions of biblical terms and concepts create blind spots and barriers that keep us from what would otherwise be clear and straightforward instruction.
It almost seems as if we’re in a vicious and brutal war with spiritual forces of darkness bent upon blinding us and denying us what God has promised to us, for fear that if we access the full power that is rightfully ours, their power will be broken and their dominion will end.
For some of what follows, its relevance to the resurrection and our transformation might not be immediately clear, but it will be. And if we can reach the summit of the mountain before us, suddenly, and before we know it, we’ll find ourselves enveloped in that lightning, filled with the Gift that was promised, because we’ll see it all laid out clearly before us, without the scales in our eyes.
The Knowledge of Good and Evil
Our metamorphosis from spiritually-dead objects of wrath into sons and daughters of the living God will be consummated at Christ’s return when we are resurrected from the dead. Here, now, in our mortal bodies, we have only the seed of what we will be, but that doesn’t mean the transformation has not begun – or, at least, that it should not have already begun.
That transformation is arrested and thwarted, however, by the aforementioned popular falsehoods, and among the most significant and crippling of which is our common misunderstanding of the nature of morality.
Humanity fell from grace by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the result was shame.
Consequently, shame now dominates our moral thinking. If we have any self-awareness at all to be cognizant of our sin, we are – quite rightly – ashamed of ourselves, ashamed of our desires, ashamed of our failure to deny them, ashamed of our shortcomings and moral “nakedness.” We know our sinful proclivities to be fundamental features of the self, and we seek to deny them. Or, we give in to those desires, and are ashamed of having done so, and so we attempt to compensate by parading our sin as supposed “pride” and seek out others defined by the same sins to assure us that it’s Ok, because it’s “natural” and “normal.” We’re sensitive about our sin and feel vulnerable because of it, so we hide the true self while presenting the most sanitized version of ourselves to others. Because of our shame, “morality” is both an offensive weapon and a defensive wall.
That shame is appropriate, to a degree, but it has also thoroughly warped our collective moral understanding.
Specifically, we commonly define “evil” as synonymous with “selfishness.” And, that’s somewhat natural and intuitive, given that the self is the source of evil, and so to deny evil, we deny the self. So that is the line we commonly draw between Good and Evil: the wicked are “selfish” while the heroic and righteous are “selfless.”
While this is almost universally intuitively agreed upon, it’s not what the Bible teaches, nor what is revealed by clear and objective reason.
In his essay “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis wrote:
“If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.”
Lewis understates the point.
It isn’t merely that Unselfishness is “not the highest virtue.”
It is that Self-interest is at the very heart of virtue.
Love is the highest virtue. Absolutely. But the foundation of virtue itself is Self-interest. You cannot reach the pinnacle that is Love without first building upon the foundation that is Self-interest. We so often fail to reach the height because we haven’t built up from the proper foundation.
This idea is distasteful, if not repugnant to most people and, I have found, to Christians especially, but it is undeniable from the Scriptures. That is their shame coloring their outlook, not their reason and not the Bible.
As Lewis noted, every invitation Jesus ever made to follow him was predicated on an appeal to self-interest. At no point did Jesus ever say anything like, “Anyone who comes after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me, and in so doing, be killed, then rejected by God and cast into hell … but you should still do it, because it’s the right thing to do – because it’s unselfish.”
No, he warned of suffering and death, but always on the promise that in the end, the rewards will infinitely outweigh the costs: “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory, and he will reward each person according to what they have done.”
He typically characterized following him as a matter of wise, self-interested investment:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46)
So, it could hardly be said that the person who followed him was “unselfish” or “selfless,” and followed him for that supposedly “noble” reason, while the person who rejected him was “selfish” and did so for that reason. It was because the person who followed him understood that his ultimate self-interest would best be served by doing so, while the others – such as the rich young man – sought theirs elsewhere.
Consider two hypothetical college dormmates: one is what we would all regard as a “good kid” because he studies, trains hard at his sport, gets good grades, performs well on the field and in the classroom; while the other is a “bad kid” because he squanders his tuition on booze and other self-indulgences, doesn’t apply himself to anything beyond chasing girls and gratifying his appetites, stays up all night partying and skips class the next day, and so eventually flunks out of school and gets cut-off by his parents for wasting their money. The good kid goes on to a high-paying career in the field of his choice, gets married, raises children, loves them and spends quality time with them and teaches them the value of hard work and integrity, and lives a happy and fulfilled life and eventually dies surrounded by his loving family. The bad kid, on the other hand, goes on to work menial jobs for low pay, sells drugs on the side and has a string of short-term girlfriends, many of whom he impregnates and abandons, leaving them to either abort or raise their child on their own, while he drifts from town to town, getting arrested for one petty crime after another before he eventually dies in jail, alone and unmourned.
The difference between them is not that one is “selfless” while the other is “selfish.” The good man pursued his own perceived self-interest absolutely no less than the bad man did. The difference is in where they believed their self-interest to be. The good man had a longer-term understanding of where he could find the greatest rewards in life and sacrificed his immediate gratification in favor of those rewards, while the highest reward of which the bad man could conceive was in his next drunken binge, drug score or sexual encounter.
The difference that made one man good and the other evil is in what they valued.
Every person who has ever lived has been “selfish” in that they acted in service to their own values, whatever those might be. Jesus was absolutely no exception. It was “for the joy set before him” that he endured the cross, we read. He sacrificed himself, but he did it because he believed he was getting something in return, and it was something he valued more than what he lost. That doesn’t make his sacrifice any less heroic. That is precisely the reason it was heroic: it was because he so loved the world that he gave his life. The man who willingly dies for his country or his family does so because he values these more than he does his life: he does it in service to what he values. A coward isn’t contemptible because he values his life. Everyone values their life. Jesus did too. No, it’s because the coward thinks just living, just going on existing, in avoidance of pain and risk – but without virtue or self-respect or the bonds of love and faithfulness to other people or any higher principle or cause – is of greater value than what he could serve by endangering himself.
The difference that makes one person good and the other evil is not that one is “selfish” and the other isn’t. The difference is in what they believe brings the highest benefit to themselves – what they value, where they believe the greatest reward is to be found. Is it in loving other people and investing yourself in them, and potentially sacrificing yourself for them? Or is it in preying upon people in service to your appetites? Or is it just existing comfortably, without virtue or conviction or principles?
The difference between Good and Evil is simply this: Where you place your faith.
That’s what “faith” means: where you believe your self-interest lies. On what are you betting? Where do you place your hope? How are you investing your time, your money, your intentions, your affections?
These are all just different ways of describing faith.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus said.
Consider the Garden of Eden and how the Serpent tempted them. He asked, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
He portrayed God as more restrictive, withholding more from them than He really was: in truth, they could eat from every tree in the garden, except for just the one.
When Eve corrected him, the Serpent responded, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
In other words, “God is lying to you because He’s holding out on you. This thing that will benefit and enlighten you, He is denying to you, because He doesn’t love you and have your best interests at heart.”
The Serpent’s objective was to undermine their faith in God and get them to invest it elsewhere. The Devil always promises the same rewards God offers and wants us to have, but on terms that degrade and defile the very thing he promises.
God Himself placed the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden, but not because He wanted them to sin. By definition and nature, God hates sin. He never wants anyone to sin. Yet it was He who placed the Tree there and commanded them not to eat from it, thereby creating the potential for sin.
Because He wanted them to have the very thing the Serpent claimed He withheld – He wanted their eyes to be opened so they could become like Him, knowing good and evil. There was nothing intrinsic about the fruit or the Tree that made it “the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” It was simply in the fact that He commanded them not to eat from it that gave it that quality and function, because in so doing, God created the possibility of choice between good and evil, obedience and disobedience, life and death.
This is consistent with the pattern of Genesis so far. In very Taoist/yin and yang-fashion, God created and ordered the universe by the division of opposites: He created time – the variation between day and night – by separating light and darkness; He created space by separating the waters above from the waters below; He created earth by separating the water from the dry land. He created humanity by separating male and female.
Then, the same pattern plays out when God placed Man in the Garden of Eden, as it was characterized by the same duality of opposites: in the middle of the Garden were the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, eating the fruit of which would bring death. In other words, these were the trees of Life and Death.
To become fully like God, Man had to be able to negotiate that duality. To be a free moral agent, that is, he had to exercise the power of choice. He had to obtain wisdom by learning the knowledge of good and evil. God wanted Man to obtain that wisdom by doing good – by trusting and obeying the One who made him. Instead, it was by doing evil.
Their evil was not in being “selfish” for wanting to obtain wisdom. Their evil was in misplacing their faith with regard to how to obtain it. Having sought it by choosing the “Tree of Death,” they were thereby denied access to the Tree of Life.
The Rise of Man
Our first parents’ faithlessness brought about the Fall of Man.
Now, the Rise of Man is offered by way of the same kind of faith that our first parents failed to exhibit.
God calls us to faith in Him on the basis of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But, it isn’t faith solely with regard to Christ’s resurrection. That is the basis for our faith, while our own resurrection is the object of it: we trust God’s promise of our own resurrection because He has proven His faithfulness to do so through Christ’s resurrection.
That doesn’t mean merely holding a particular doctrine about it, though. We aren’t supposed to just believe about it. That’s not what faith is. We must believe in it. We must invest in it – we must believe that our ultimate good lies in claiming and pursuing what God has promised us.
That’s how the original Christians thought of it. The Fall of Man led to the moral degradation of humanity. The Rise of Man is the inverse and opposite: it is – at root – a moral transformation, of which our eventual resurrection to eternal life is only the consummation, the final maturation and completion of it.
And it is our belief in that resurrection which effects this transformation, beginning at the moment we first believe. The continuation of that transformation is in making the values of God and of Christ our own – we learn to love what He loves and to hate what He hates, and in so doing, we participate in His nature, and our motivation for doing so is our belief that this is where our ultimate good lies.
As the apostle wrote:
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (1 John 3:1-3)
Consider that last sentence carefully. It is the hope of being made like the risen Christ that purifies us – makes us pure, just as Christ himself is pure. This hope is the mechanism by which Christ’s moral purity becomes our moral purity.
But, again – because this cannot be overstated – this “hope” is not mere doctrinal assent.
The apostles thought this hope – if it is genuine – entailed doing something about it:
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus … He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (Philippians 3:10-21)
Clearly, Paul understood his own resurrection as something to be attained. It was something to strive for, and he didn’t consider himself to have yet attained it.
“The Prize” to which Paul directed his lifelong striving was not a given. It was not automatic. Yes, it was that for which Christ had taken hold of Paul, but Paul himself didn’t thereby regard it as inevitable, or as something that would just fall into his lap by default. He had to strive after it.
Elsewhere, in the passage in which Paul most famously defends and defines the promise of the general resurrection, he concluded with this: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”
As in – the resurrection is that for which they labored. It was not in vain, Paul said, because Christ’s resurrection was the proof and promise of their own.
But it is a conditional promise – there is labor expected. Not just for Paul, but for all Christians.
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” he wrote.
So what does this mean? What is this “labor” to which we are called, in light of our hope of resurrection? How do we “work out our salvation”?
As we find instruction about this in the New Testament, we could categorize it as “internal labor” and “external labor.”
The internal would refer to our personal spiritual growth into Christ-likeness.
As a lead-up to a description of that “internal labor,” the apostle Peter gives a concise description of salvation itself:
“His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence; through these He has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them, you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by appetites.” (2 Peter 1:3-4)
It is participation in the divine nature that is the objective, the goal of all else – that is “salvation” and “eternal life,” and to participate in the divine nature is to escape the corruption of the world caused by fallen human appetites and lusts.
This is accomplished, the apostle wrote, through the promises of God: because He has promised our resurrection, and He has promised us that, if we believe, we have His very Spirit and Nature within us, therefore we can “participate” in His nature.
He continues with a step-by-step, systematic explanation of what this means:
“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence; and to excellence, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-mastery; and to self-mastery, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly affection; and to brotherly affection, love.”
Each of these seven terms, in the original Greek, carried connotations within the biblical worldview, and some were familiar technical terms within Greek philosophical thought, and so conveyed meaning to the original audience that mere translation cannot do justice, and so each would be worth a sermon-length word study that is beyond the scope of our purposes here.
Suffice to say, each is an attribute of the divine nature we inherit as heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, and they are arranged here in successive hierarchical order, culminating with the highest attribute: Love. Or, in the Greek, “Agape,” which is the highest of the four Greek terms for “love” and is the term used by another apostle to describe the essential nature of God Himself.
In other words – these are divine qualities that exist within us, but in seed form, as potentialities. We must cultivate them. It doesn’t happen automatically. Like the namesake of this blog – the divine nature is like a third helix added to our double-stranded human DNA. We have the “raw materials” within our own nature, but our inherited godhood can only be brought to fruition through intention and discipline. Which is why the apostle exhorted his readers to “make every effort” to add these qualities to their faith.
And, notice that he didn’t write, “make every effort to add to your faith love.” No, he started with “excellence” or “virtue” (Greek “arete”), with each successive quality built upon the last. You have to build up to Agape.
But it starts with faith – with wise, self-interested investment by claiming God’s promises.
And, it continues on the same principle, because love itself is definitionally self-interested. “Love your neighbor as yourself” presupposes self-love – you cannot give what you do not have. But, the shame of our fallen nature cripples us from being able to love ourselves, and makes us hostile toward God and our neighbor. That is why we need a new nature. “We love because He first loved us,” another apostle wrote. And because God loves us, we are not only permitted, but commanded to love ourselves, and only then is it possible to love our neighbors as ourselves.
We have to grow into that, and if we truly believe His promises and have our faith rightly placed, we make every effort to do so.
“For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter continued.
This speaks to the external aspect of that labor. As we grow in the divine nature, we become more and more like Christ in this world, and so cannot help but to do as he would do, which is to lift up and edify our fellow believers, exhorting them to likewise make every effort to add to their own faith those qualities.
This, in fact, is what the Church is for.
“The Church” is an assembly drawn together by our common faith in these promises and our shared purpose of cultivating the divine nature within ourselves, and so help each other to “make every effort” to do so.
When Paul echoed a similar “make every effort” exhortation and spoke of the spiritual gifts and offices within the Church apportioned by Christ, the purpose of it, he wrote, was “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ (i.e., the Church) may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
This is the purpose for which Christ supernaturally empowered believers with miraculous gifts in the 1st century. This is how the Church is supposed to function, and how it grows, how it saves the world and takes back the nations from the gods of this world.
In such a functional, biblically-faithful church, you shouldn’t be able to just walk in on Sunday morning and immediately be able to tell who the pastor is. To be a member of such a church should entail being paired with a mentor and taught how to pursue these divine qualities, and in so doing, discovering and learning how to implement your own spiritual gifts. That means it’s not a one-man show on Sunday morning. Every single member contributes and is actively involved – on Sunday, and the rest of the week, in various forms of ministry. As the leader of the local church, it should not be the pastor’s job to preach a sermon every Sunday morning, but to lead the church. He is the “shepherd.” It should be his job to coordinate discipleship and to recruit members to whom to delegate responsibilities for the general operation of the church. Maybe he’ll preach a sermon of his own once in a while, but if he’s not grooming other capable members of his congregation to be able to do that and other ministerial tasks, he simply isn’t doing his job as the pastor, and he isn’t leading an actual church.
In other words, the Church should look more like the Jedi Order than what we commonly think of as “church” today (sans their abysmal moral philosophy).
What we have today instead is the performance of “church,” an impersonation – not genuine, functional churches.
Has God Really Said …?
It is quite obvious why this is the case: virtually every single idea, value and belief that is commonly taught in Church today cultivates a general attitude of pious-sounding hostility against everything I’ve described here.
Most glaringly, our concept of “worthiness,” and our lack thereof, is openly antagonistic to the promises of God.
Christians absolutely love to parade their unworthiness and declare what great sinners they are. It’s one of our most common shibboleths to convey our identity as churchgoing Christians, and it’s not uncommon, even, for it to be used as a show of status or dominance within a group of Christians – the person who is most conspicuously contrite over their great and terrible sin is the most “spiritual” person in the room.
And, memes like these are common fare in Christian corners of social media, because they reflect our common thinking:
But, why would a Christian – a genuine, sincere, born-again Christian who truly believes and is imbued with the divine nature – be unworthy?
To teach that is nothing less than a denial of the gospel.
If we put our faith in Him, we are justified. According to Paul, this is no different than if we had kept every single requirement of the Law perfectly.
That doesn’t mean we earned it. That doesn’t mean that God owes us anything because of our worthiness, obviously, because it’s a worthiness He gifted to us.
But it does mean we are worthy.
What’s more, we have the very nature of Christ himself – of God Himself – within us, if we believe.
So when we declare ourselves unworthy, what could that possibly mean, but that, either, we don’t have Christ’s nature within us – which means we’re not actually Christians, or it means that having his nature within us isn’t sufficient to make us worthy – which would imply that Christ himself is unworthy.
Neither of these is an acceptable position for a Christian.
Whoever created this meme, as well as the millions of Christians who liked and shared and commented “Amen!”, simply do not understand the gospel. What it should have read is that “the Lord checked for the blood on the doorposts … and by that He knew those inside were worthy.”
Of course, Christians will quote to me all the passages that speak of our sinful nature, especially 1 Timothy 1:15-16:
“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
The argument is that, because Paul described himself as “the worst” in the present-tense, this means he still regarded himself as “the worst of sinners,” post-salvation.
That’s quite obviously wrong. His grammar was present tense, but he’s still speaking of the past. Paul is – in the present tense – an example of someone who was the worst of sinners.
Elsewhere, he wrote:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.”
Paul clearly didn’t expect Christians to remain in the state of depravity in which they previously existed, and so he could not have meant that about himself.
Another favorite proof-text is Romans 7, in which Paul made such statements as, “I am sold as a slave to sin,” and “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me …” and “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
But, Romans 7 is the “‘before’ picture.” That was not Paul describing his life as a Christian. That was his state of existence prior to salvation, trying to be justified under the Law.
This is plain from Romans 8, in which he wrote, “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.” (verse 3)
Romans 8 is the “‘after’ picture,” in which Paul describes the life of the Christian, in contrast to the “before” of Romans 7: “Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.”
The point is, Christians are not supposed to wallow in our sin and unworthiness anymore. Yes, we still have a sinful nature. Yes, we still sin. I’m not arguing for sinless perfection as our standard.
But it’s clear from Romans 8 that Paul thought the Christian’s life should not be characterized by sin any longer. He contrasted and defined those “before” and “after” pictures, respectively: “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”
It is the flesh that is still dominated by the shame of our sinful nature and fixates upon it.
In other words – we cannot escape the sinful nature by fixating upon it, but by pursuing virtue and the divine qualities, committing ourselves to the process described in the previous section.
The common refrain among Christians is to reject any idea of a “process” at all and to condemn it as “works-based salvation.”
They’ll deal with passages like those I cited by trying to lawyer them – finding whatever loopholes and wiggle-room and sophistry they can to make them say something other than what they do.
For instance, when Paul instructed the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” Christians commonly find recourse in the next verse: “ … for it is God who works in you, to will and to act according to His good purpose.”
“See?” they’ll argue. “It is God who works in you. You don’t do anything at all. It’s all God, not you.”
They have a ready-made interpretation like that for every possible passage that could be cited in which the biblical writers exhort Christians to “make every effort,” to strive, to discipline themselves, to act, to take any initiative, to do anything. It’s always, “Yes, the passage says that, but …” as they follow up with something to blunt the urgency, to lower the stakes, to get themselves off the hook. The common pattern is that where the biblical writers exhorted Christians to exert effort and take active initiative and responsibility, the modern churchgoer lawyers it to justify passivity, taking no responsibility, rejecting any demands that might be placed on them as Christians, and they do so in a way that makes it sound very pious and devout, as if these are all virtues to be cultivated instead of the vice and cowardice that they actually are.
Christians like to parade their unworthiness because it gives them an excuse to fail. It normalizes sin within the Church and establishes a lack of spiritual progress as the expectation for all Christians.
We want that license to fail, because we don’t really believe what we read in the Bible.
We are promised that we have His nature within us. If we truly love and worship Jesus Christ for who he is, for his virtues and character and holiness, and we are told that we also have these qualities within ourselves, if we would but cultivate them, if we truly believed that, we wouldn’t see these exhortations in Scripture as burdensome chores to reluctantly undertake as a condition of salvation, and so try to explain them away and excuse ourselves from them. We would see them for what they are – these “chores” are salvation itself, and we would be thrilled to take them up. To be like Jesus Christ? To have his nature within us, right now? To know that we can be like him? What could possibly be better? Why wouldn’t we happily throw off every encumbrance and distraction and pursue this Prize with our whole being, with every possible moment of our attention?
If we find these promises in Scripture, yet declare that we are powerless, wretched and unworthy … well, we truly are unworthy.
We’re letting the shame of our fallen nature veto the glory to which God calls us, which is rightfully ours if we would but listen to Him and trust Him. We’re putting our faith in the leadings of the Serpent who tells us, “You’re not worthy. You can’t do it. You don’t really have His nature in you. God hasn’t really promised any of this …”
And that is why the lightning never comes, and why we remain mortal and unworthy and defeated.