In my first entry of this series, I wrote about how our popular notion of “faith” is actually a negation of the true gospel that we’re “saved by grace through faith, not by the works of the law.”
By setting faith in contrast to reason instead of in contrast to law, we empty it of its power: many lifelong churchgoers don’t truly believe the resurrection; they suspend disbelief about it. Instead of a genuine faith in God rooted in the certainty of His existence and of His intervention in history, the mainstream institutional Church teaches an empty, impotent, and subjective fideism.
The result is a “gospel” that falsely offers salvation through law. It’s not a law of ceremony and personal conduct like the Old Testament law, but a law of belief: “if you believe X, Y, and Z about God and Jesus, God will give you salvation in exchange, and you can join our club.”
In fact, everything about Christianity is subverted by our mistaken notion of “faith”: our epistemology (how we believe and know things), our soteriology (how we’re saved), and our ecclesiology (our understanding of the Church and our own place within it) are each and all perverted and undermined.
In the second entry, Consumers in the Market for a Seeker-Friendly God, I wrote about how we got here.
The title was meant to juxtapose against Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The point was to contrast our collective perception of Christianity-as-we-know-it as something divinely-inspired and immutable, to which we are accountable before God, with what it actually is—a man-made adaptation of God’s revelation, shaped by the market force of consumer demand.
Christianity-as-we-know-it is not based, primarily, upon God’s revelation of Himself nor upon the teachings of the Bible, strictly speaking, nor is it shaped, even, by the ideas of popular preachers and teachers. Rather, it’s the product of the demands of religious consumers. It’s not the Christianity God wants, but the “Christianity” we want: collectively, we selectively emphasize some portions of scripture and downplay others according to what we actually want to believe, and shape our concept of God accordingly, and we favor those preachers, churches, and denominations that accommodate our preferences, while we avoid those that do not. The result is a wide selection of made-to-order versions of Christianity in the form of the various and sundry denominations out there to suit different patterns of individual taste.
In my third entry, I Am Not a Pessimist, I wrote about how our popular “gospel” tells us that we can safely put questions of God and the afterlife behind us so we can pursue our own ambitions if we believe the right things. This “gospel” doesn’t produce any meaningful change within us, and so we don’t live any differently than all of the “lost” and godless people around us. And while this sounds pretty bleak, I wouldn’t bother writing about all this if I didn’t think we could change—my message is actually much more optimistic and positive than it might initially seem. In order to do that, though, first we have to know for a fact that Christianity—real Christianity—is actually true, and then we have to generate sufficient consumer demand to transform our institutions so that it’s actually taught and practiced according to the model of the original, apostolic Church.
In the fourth entry, The Lynchpin of Existence, I explain in basic terms how we can know as an objective, verifiable historical fact that the resurrection, and therefore the gospel, is true. In the fifth entry, Defending the Lynchpin, I address and refute most of the popular arguments against the resurrection.
Everything I’ve written thus far, though, can be reviewed and summarized in the following:
“I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”
These were Jesus’ words to the crowds of enthusiasts who had just followed him across the sea after he’d fed five-thousand of them with a few loaves of bread.
Their collective response to this miracle was seemingly appropriate: they hailed him as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” and tried to make him king. And they were right, of course—Jesus was, in fact, the rightful King from the line of David and the Prophet foretold by Moses, i.e., the Messiah.
They were right, but they were so completely wrong.
They were right about who he was, but wrong because Who He Was was completely incidental to their interest in him. It didn’t really matter to them that he had been sent by God, or that his words and teachings were the key to immortality and to the salvation of their souls, their families, their country and their way of life.
After all, it was their eventual rejection of Jesus as the Messiah that led, ultimately, to the destruction of their nation at the hands of the Romans forty years later.
Historians might offer competing interpretations of that tragedy, but Jesus called it early on: “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you…”
Also, Jewish tradition of the last two-thousand years corroborates that explanation. They don’t make quite the same connection by saying, “God destroyed the nation because we rejected our Messiah,” but they have a yearly day of mourning over their exile and the destruction of the temple, and the Talmud states that “every generation in which the temple is not rebuilt is just as guilty as the generation in which it was destroyed.” In other words, Orthodox Jewish belief has it that when they collectively repent of the sin that characterized that generation in 70 AD, God will reverse His punishment by sending the Messiah to rebuild the temple and usher in the Redemption. The fact that He has yet to do so signals that they remain unworthy and unprepared for the coming of the Messiah.
And before I get accused of racism or anti-Semitism, let me reiterate that that’s not my interpretation of the Fall of Jerusalem, nor even that of any particular Christian denomination, to my knowledge. That’s what Judaism teaches. And I don’t point any of this out to gloat over the suffering of the Jews, or even as an apologetic for Christianity (although it does work as an apologetic for Christianity). I mention it because there’s a lesson here that applies to us—to Christians.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill,” Jesus said.
They could see plainly enough that he was the Messiah—that he had been sent by God, spoke for God, and was their rightful King.
And they were happy to proclaim him as such and to install him as their ruler, but it wasn’t because they were interested in God or Truth or spiritual enlightenment or even in Jesus himself.
They liked that free bread.
And Jesus didn’t begrudge them their free food. It was his idea in the first place. He knew they needed to eat and was happy to provide.
Feeding them mere bread wasn’t his ultimate purpose, though. He’d come to feed them new life. The bread was just to get their attention.
They lost interest, though, when he began to explain their real need: “Oh, yeah? If you’re the Messiah, prove it,” they said, despite having been convinced just the day before that they should overthrow the government to make Jesus king, precisely because they recognized him as the One foretold.
They didn’t like his terms, of course, because as far as they were concerned, they didn’t need any stinkin’ “new life.” They were already in good with God, so worldwide supremacy and a trouble-free afterlife were already in the bag. After all, didn’t they already have the right beliefs, the right religion, and the right pedigree? In fact, they’d even pegged Jesus as the right Messiah already.
Accepting Jesus on his own terms would have meant admitting their need, though, which would mean giving up their previously held sense of security and righteousness and cultural superiority. Their very identity as Jews was supposed to guarantee their security and good-standing before God. After all, hadn’t God promised them as much? Wasn’t that what it meant to be Jewish? Wasn’t that the essential difference between them and everybody else? The Messiah was supposed to affirm them in these things, not undermine them, they thought.
So they turned on him, and many of his disciples, even, abandoned him.
As Christians, whenever we cover this passage in Bible studies or sermons, we typically identify with Peter and the rest of the Twelve who stuck around after the disgruntled crowds left. After all, we’re Christians, right? By definition, we’re the disciples who have stuck around to follow Jesus… aren’t we? And isn’t that the point of the passage? That there are these two camps of people: the camp for the good guys—the people who believe in Jesus, and the other camp for the bad guys—the Pharisees and Sadducees and other non-believers who eventually had Jesus arrested and crucified.
After all, it’s right there in the passage: “‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent.’”
That’s us, right? We’re the people who believe in Jesus, and then there’s everybody else who doesn’t.
Except… they believed in Jesus, too. They’d just followed him across the Sea of Galilee because they knew he was the Messiah and wanted him to be their king… Any one of them would have answered an altar call, based on what they believed about Jesus at that point.
That changed, though, after he said, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.”
My last few entries have been about how “the signs” speak loudly and clearly to the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, because his resurrection from the dead is a proven…or, at least, provable fact of history. Scripturally, it’s not offered as an article of faith or as a superstition to be blindly believed, but as something knowable and verifiable, by information available to anyone and everyone—especially now, in the Age of the Internet, when virtually all human knowledge is instantly accessible to any given person at any given time.
The relevant facts are readily available, yet they’re in short supply among rank-and-file churchgoers. Most Christians will proudly and adamantly declare their belief in Jesus, but when you ask them why they believe, most won’t be able to tell you. Or, if they do, they’ll appeal to their personal feelings or their preferences. Their answer will be almost anything but a rational appeal to evidence.
That’s not entirely their fault, though. Most local churches don’t bother to teach people why Christianity is actually true—it’s just assumed up front that everybody is already on board, because “faith” is a magical feeling God bestows upon the chosen, and it’s out of our hands… or so we’re taught.
A few years ago, I found my curiosity piqued when the pastor of the church I attended at the time announced during the morning service that a few people had asked him to teach them “how to share their faith,” so he would be teaching a brief class on how to do that later that afternoon. His instruction consisted solely of leading us through a tract—the kind sidewalk preachers hand out, on the “four spiritual laws,” so we’d be prepared to do the same, should an opportunity ever present itself to share the material with a non-believer. A few people spoke up at various points in the pastor’s presentation with questions of “What if the person asks such-and-such…?”—usually having to do with some common intellectual objection or another. His counsel for such an eventuality was to ignore or deflect the question and stick to the material in the tract, because the person who asks such questions “is just trying to distract you,” he said.
The assumption behind that approach is that if a person hears “the gospel” enough times, eventually the Holy Spirit will miracle them into believing—apart from, or even despite their faculties of reason, so you’ve just got to expose them to it as often as you can… which just so happens to be a basic method of brainwashing employed by any cult. There is no attempt at apologetics or appeals made to reason and evidence, because people are saved “by faith” (please see The Foundation, part 1 if you’re puzzled about why that’s in quotation marks).
It also assumes that there is no such thing as an honest intellectual objection to Christianity—that people who raise objections and ask difficult questions are just making excuses to justify their sin, so it’s a waste of attention and effort to answer them. It presumes that—whatever else they say—their questions are insincere and their unbelief is willful and deliberate. The assumption beneath that assumption (which no one would come out and say in so many words, because it would conflict with other deeply-held dogmas) is that those who do believe without asking difficult questions or vetting the belief through reason, do so out of some kind of virtue unique to those possessing “faith” and lacking in those without it. So, in essence, the pastor’s instruction was to answer such questions with a subtle implication of guilt… which also happens to be a basic component of any brainwashing program.
Now, the law of averages dictates that eventually, if we apply this method persistently to as many people as we can, as often as we can, somebody somewhere at some point will become a Christian as a result. That miniscule sample of positive outcomes will then be trumpeted to validate the method and the belief behind it—that God saves people by invisible and mysterious means beyond the purview of human reason and with no relation to our own competence or faithfulness to present the gospel in reasonable, convincing terms (call it an “evangelical rain dance”). The vast majority of the time, though—and as a former non-Christian, I speak from experience—the effect is not spiritual conversion, but to make the person on the receiving end feel something like a stormtrooper we’re trying to sneak some droids past, and something like Dorothy being told to “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!!”
A few years earlier at another church, I was chatting with one of the high school kids who had just left his Sunday school class before the main service, and I was pleasantly surprised, momentarily, when I asked him what the class was about, and he answered “apologetics.”
“Oh, cool! What kind of apologetics did they teach?” I asked, wondering if it was about prophecy fulfillment, the historicity of the New Testament, evidence for the resurrection, or what…
My heart sank when he answered, “They just showed us how to find stuff in the Bible to support what we believe.”
There were so many different things I wanted to say to that, including the question of why they were putting the cart in front of the horse by telling them first what to believe, and then finding justification for it after the fact.
Instead, I opted for: “So… what if you’re talking to someone who doesn’t believe the Bible? What then?”
“They have to already believe the Bible, I guess,” he answered.
“And what do you think the odds are that you’ll be in a conversation with somebody who believes the Bible but isn’t already a Christian?”
“Well, there are Catholics and other people who belong to the wrong denominations…” he shrugged.
In other words, you have to already be a Christian in some sense to benefit from this approach to “apologetics,” but there’s just no talking to you if you’re not already sold on the Bible.
I didn’t press him on it, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have been able to explain why he accepted the Bible as The Authority, as opposed to the Qur’an or the Iliad and the Odyssey, or any other literature revered elsewhere as holy writ.
I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down too hard on him or on others like him, though, because none of that was his fault, because he was never taught why it’s true. Like most Christians, he was socialized to accept it—“on faith,” and unqualified compliance would have been expected as a matter of course within his family, peer group, and community. The fact that it was the Bible instead of the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Book of Mormon is entirely an accident of birth, and had he been born elsewhere he would attach all the same feelings and reverence and authority to any one of those books instead of the Bible.
The truth of the Bible is entirely incidental to our preference for it.
And, as I’ve explained at length in previous entries, this is completely upside-down and backwards from how Christianity originally spread, when every institution and every social and religious convention in the world at the time stood opposed to it.
Of course, there is obviously a certain subjective quality to faith, but as the apostles explained, we’re not supposed to believe the resurrection because we have faith (or, as is commonly the case, because we have a series of preferences and opinions inculcated through lifelong cultural conditioning, which we mistake for “faith”). We’re supposed to have faith because we believe the resurrection. We don’t believe the resurrection by faith, because the resurrection is an objective fact. Faith is the appropriate response to that fact, once the fact is established. The apostles appealed to people’s faith when they exhorted them to live by the truth that they knew, but they spread that truth by appealing first to reason and evidence. The resurrection is not the subject of faith, but its source.
(And if you’re not on board with this, then I ask you to read The Foundation, part 4: The Lynchpin of Existence and read from there…)
We prefer Christianity and the Bible, then—not because we saw the signs that testify to its truth, but because we ate the loaves and had our fill, so to speak.
The Bible, Christianity, the Church, our concept of God, and the figure of Jesus Christ… they fulfill a wide gamut of social, cultural, and psychological functions, completely apart from and unrelated to any higher spiritual Reality.
Christianity functions as a tribal banner for us to rally under: it’s a cultural security blanket, basically, which tells us who we are and what kind of a group we belong to, and it tells us who else belongs or doesn’t belong in our group. It’s a context for socialization and enculturation. Most large churches, for instance, have singles’ groups, youth groups, married-couple groups, and other categories in which to file ourselves so that we can socialize with like-minded people with similar interests, and to develop social support networks among people who share our values, outlooks, and life experiences.
And, it offers a political banner to rally under: a collective voice to shape our larger society so that our national laws, customs, social standards, and ethical norms validate and accommodate us, but suppress, marginalize, or exclude any influences or interests that don’t conform to our way of life. Ostensibly, we don’t do this for ourselves, of course… we do it for God.
The Church also provides a ritual order to our lives in the form of baby dedications/infant baptisms, weddings, funerals, annual holidays, weekly services, etc. And, of course, non-Christians also get married, have babies, die and have funerals, and even celebrate all of the same holidays Christians do, but the same events take on a kind of sacred patina when we mark them within the context of our religion. But, even with that sacred patina to add that extra sparkle to the mile-markers of our lives, our marriages aren’t any stronger and our kids aren’t any less likely to meet with personal disaster than non-Christian children, as the observable facts demonstrate (see my About section and The Foundation, part 3: I Am Not a Pessimist).
Our concept of God, even, serves a completely natural, earthly function much of the time. For many people, “God” is little or nothing more than their imaginary friend. And I don’t say that to try to be funny or to belittle my fellow Christians’ spiritual lives (although, unfortunately, I recognize that someone will probably feel belittled and ridiculed, but that’s not my intention, for what it’s worth). I say it because it’s true: imaginary friends, as we know, are a very real psychological phenomenon, and they seem quite vivid and real to the people who have them, and are sometimes indistinguishable from actual people. But, they exist solely in the mind of the person, and solely for the purpose of helping that person manage their own perceptions and anxieties and to reconcile internal conflicts. Likewise, the “God” to whom many people pray is nothing more than a psychological construct that has no more connection to the God of Jesus Christ than an imaginary friend has with living, breathing people. The “God” to whom they pray is nothing but a deified projection of their own affections, fears, preferences, prejudices, and cultural conventions, and that’s why many apparently devout and sincere Christians are often able to say, do, and pray for horrible, indefensible things with the full, enthusiastic approval of their consciences. (By the way, my “‘God’-as-Imaginary Friend”-charge is nothing new or unique. The prophets called people on the same shenanigans centuries ago.)
Finally, Jesus is rarely, if ever, our “Lord and Savior” in any practical sense when we gather for our potlucks, hiking trips, and Superbowl watch-parties. The term we use for such outings is “fellowship,” but our identification as fellow Christians is really incidental to that fellowship, for the most part. Rather, it’s our common interest in football, the outdoors, scrapbooking, or whatever else we’re into that makes us fellows; and other Christians with pious zeal equal to our own, but who don’t share those interests, would be completely out of place in our gatherings. In that regard, then, Jesus isn’t Lord and Savior—he’s just our mascot, and for our purposes, any other mascot would serve just as well… except that we want to imbue our socializing with that sacred patina which makes our culture so much better than others.
For the most part, though, I think we’d all agree that there’s nothing wrong with having and meeting these needs. There is nothing inherently wrong with Christians watching the Superbowl together or sharing other common interests. We need our social support networks. We need culture and identity and social validation. It’s no more sinful to fulfill these needs than it was sinful for people to eat the free bread Jesus gave them.
But, like the people who hailed Jesus as the Messiah simply because he fed them, Christians will readily affirm the truth of Christianity because it effectively meets all of these needs—because, as far as they can tell, Christianity works.
Except, it hardly needs to be true for it to meet those needs, any more than Mormonism or Islam or Wicca need to be true to meet their devotees’ social, cultural, and psychological needs. And so it’s no wonder that we don’t bother to teach anybody why it’s true.
And, while having and meeting those needs isn’t inherently wrong, isn’t it the very definition of “sin” to put lesser needs ahead of greater needs? Sin, after all, is rarely overtly malevolent. More often, it’s a matter of misplaced priority.
Sex, for example, in and of itself, isn’t wrong. It’s moral and good. Our species would die out if we stopped doing it. But, sex at the expense of human dignity or marital fidelity or love is an abomination leading to exploitation, poverty, and suffering. Feasting and celebrating are, in themselves, right and good, but doing so in the midst of starving, needy people is evil. The scripture tells us that God gave alcohol to “gladden the heart of man,” but it’s a sinful abuse of His gift to drink to excess at the expense of our families, livelihoods, or ability to function.
Likewise, the needs currently met by cultural Christianity are legitimate needs… except that we’re meeting them at the expense of what Jesus really came to give us.
“But that’s how we get people’s attention and bring them to the love of Jesus, just like he did when he fed the five-thousand,” someone will object.
Except we’re not.
You know that whole “city on a hill”/“light of the world”/“salt of the earth”-thing we find in scripture to describe Jesus’ followers?
What all that translates to mean is that we’re not supposed to be like the rest of humanity. The world is covered in darkness, we read, but we’re the light. We’re supposed to live by a better, higher standard. There is supposed to be a profound and conspicuous change for the better in our outward behavior when we become Christians. We’re not supposed to live like mere men.
It’s not something we do in exchange for eternal life, though; and it doesn’t happen because we’re so profoundly grateful for eternal life that we’re suddenly willing to grit our teeth and muster the moral willpower to be better people.
No—the change in behavior is our eternal life. The “eternal life” we’re given is God’s own Life. The internal transformation works itself out in our external behavior because, as God’s children, our behavior no longer arises only from our fallen, sinful nature, but from His Nature as well (hence the “third helix” of the title of this blog).
That’s how the whole “Body of Christ”-thing is supposed to work. Paul summed up the “mystery of the gospel” as simply “Christ in you, the hope of glory,” because with Christ’s Life within us, we are, for all intents and purposes, the Messiah. We are God’s temple, His very Presence on earth, and as such, we are, collectively, His active Agent for saving the rest of humanity. Jesus’ ministry of saving the world by advancing God’s kingdom on earth didn’t end with his death, resurrection, and ascension, but continued with the apostles, then with the Church Fathers and their followers, and eventually with us.
That’s what Jesus meant when he said, instead of coming to him for “food that spoils” (i.e., the gratification of earthly needs), we are to “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood.” The same way we transform our food into the material of our flesh, we are to integrate his Life into ourselves, and that’s how we transform into the likeness of Christ.
By now, if you’re a regular churchgoer reading this, your eyes might be starting to glaze over, because you’ve already heard all this. All of this stuff gets plenty of honorable mention on Sunday mornings and on Christian radio, so it might sound like I’m affirming or regurgitating everything you’ve heard before.
We talk about all this stuff regularly enough, but there is no evidence whatsoever that any of it is actually happening. As I’ve discussed at length previously, all of the observable facts testify to the sad reality that we don’t actually live our lives any differently than non-Christians. Sure, there are plenty of cosmetic and cultural differences to suggest, at first glance, that there is a change, but in the ways that actually count—when it comes to the spiritual health of our families, the strength of our marriages, and the depth of our love for our fellow man, or any other measurement of our actual behavior—there is no discernible difference whatsoever. Our reasons for believing in our religion are no different than the rest of the world’s reasons for holding to their respective religions, and the outcome of our religion is also no different or better than theirs.
If a tree is to be judged by its fruit, then our tree isn’t any better than our unbelieving neighbors,’ because the only fruit we bear differently is found in our excuses: “Christians Aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven…” reads a popular slogan merchandisers like to print on t-shirts and bumper stickers. Not that sinless perfection is a realistic goal (nor is that even the point), but we all know we’re not supposed to be “just forgiven.” Or we should all know. Everything we read about the Christian life in the New Testament tells us that our faith is supposed to make us better people, but it’s painfully obvious that we’re not.
The reason for that, if it isn’t obvious by now, is that the “gospel” we commonly preach has no real power to save or transform. Its only power is illusory and destructive. It’s nothing but a Jedi mind trick to justify and preserve the status quo in which our earthly psychological, social, and cultural needs are met while our real need—our spiritual need for rebirth and transformation—is not. The popular “gospel” is illusory because it’s simply not true, but it’s destructive because it doesn’t just not save: it stands in the way of salvation.
The “gospel” we commonly preach has it that simply by believing (rendering intellectual assent to a doctrinal position), a person is justified and saved to eternal life… and that’s all there is to it. If you believe in Jesus, you are made right with God and need not concern yourself beyond that, because the transformation we read about in scripture will happen automatically, if you have the right beliefs. Our “gospel” has it that holding the correct doctrine of spiritual rebirth is one and the same thing as undergoing the reality of spiritual rebirth.
This “gospel” effectively reduces the entire teaching of scripture to the doctrine of the Atonement, to the practical exclusion of all else: because Jesus died for our sins, we’re thereby Justified, and there’s nothing more to it. All we need do is believe. If you believe in the Atonement—really, really believe, the rest will take care of itself.
This “gospel” is repeated over and over and over again in virtually every sermon and worship song we hear throughout our lives. It’s taken for granted in every popular Christian book and in all of our conversation and ministry efforts. All of our social pressure is directed to impressing this upon each other and upon the world.
Consequently, it’s all we’re capable of seeing, and we’re blind to anything else: Jesus died for you. Just believe that, because all else is extraneous detail. Don’t do anything else. All else is “works-based salvation” and therefore a denial of God’s grace.
So when we read the Bible on our own, we’re conditioned to project that “gospel” into it and then feed it back to ourselves, thereby reinforcing our conviction that we believe it because it’s what the Bible teaches.
What the Scripture actually teaches, though, is that the Atonement—while absolute in importance—is not all-encompassing. The Atonement is but one facet of a larger economy of salvation, which means that simply believing Christ died for us, in and of itself, avails us nothing. We must identify with him in his death. In a sense, we have to die with Christ in order to join him in his resurrection, by integrating his Risen Life into ourselves. We must deny ourselves, take up our cross daily to be crucified with him and follow him in death, and only then can we follow him in resurrection.
The former comes from Philippians 2:7 and is the word used for Christ’s act of “self-emptying” when he set aside his divine prerogative and submitted to death. We identify with him in his death, Paul wrote, when we undertake our own self-emptying by “putting to death” the behaviors and attitudes of our sinful nature. This is the yin-aspect to the yang of theosis, which is the term used to describe our maturation in the Divine Nature (not to be confused with apotheosis, which is the term for the ancient belief that pharaohs, emperors, and heroes of renown ascended to godhood in death).
Kenosis and theosis are the two different sides to the coin of salvation. They’re not optional to salvation—they’re not part of the “deluxe package” of salvation for super-saints and missionaries and other “professional Christians,” nor are they something we do in exchange for salvation, because they are salvation. If you’re not undergoing kenosis and theosis, then you don’t have “salvation” in any sense taught by Jesus and the apostles.
Our popular “gospel” has it that this process happens automatically, apart from any effort or initiative or attention on our part. It’s popularly taught that once a person is justified by belief, the outcome is guaranteed by God’s grace.
That’s the meaning we typically project upon passages like 2 Peter 1:3,4, which reads: “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness through our knowledge (Greek epignosis) of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence, and 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 that is in the world because of human appetite.”
See? There it is! The “gospel,” as it’s commonly taught dovetails perfectly into the apostle’s teaching that God has already “given us everything needed.” All we need for that life and godliness is to believe, and once we have that belief, life and godliness take care of themselves, completely by God’s grace—by His “very great and precious promises”—so that we can neither add to nor take anything away from that. It’s all God. And if we think otherwise, then we’re just being self-righteous or trying to earn our salvation.
Except, that couldn’t possibly be what Peter actually meant by that passage, because his instruction in the verses immediately following it plainly and unambiguously teach the precise opposite (2 Peter 1:5-9): “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith excellence, to excellence knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly-kindness, and to brotherly-kindness, love. 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. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.”
For the very reason that God has given us everything needed through His promises so that we can participate in His very Nature, the apostle instructed us to make every effort to add to our faith those qualities consistent with His Nature.
So, yes—it’s absolutely correct that “it’s all God,” because it’s only by His grace in implanting His Nature within us that we can make the effort to which Peter exhorts us. We receive the Divine Nature at the point of Justification and Rebirth, and so we do receive “everything needed for life and godliness,” but we receive it in seed form, just as we do our mortal DNA, and it falls to us to cultivate it and to bring it to fruition just as we do with the genetic potential we inherit from our mortal parents, hence Peter’s counsel to make every effort to do so, and Paul’s innumerable exhortations to discipline and “the divine training.”
That, of course, is why the Church exists… or is supposed to exist: to pass on the Divine Nature through the carrying-out of the Great Commission, and then to cultivate it and bring it to maturity through the administration of the sacraments and by mentoring believers in the spiritual disciplines, training them also to pass it on and to mentor others.
Yes, we’re saved by grace, through faith, but faith isn’t just belief. Faith is trust, and the extent to which we trust Him—the extent to which our confidence is truly in Him- is the extent to which we do what He says and heed the instructions of His spokesmen and representatives, the apostles and prophets.
In other words, faith means making every effort toward kenosis and theosis, as Peter instructed.
Faith is not a once-for-all, momentary transaction, but something that has to be protected and cultivated and preserved against destructive influences—having genuine faith one day is no guarantee of having it every day hence. It must be maintained. That, in fact, is the entire, essential message of the book of Hebrews.
Tellingly, when we read the infamous “problem passage” of Hebrews 5:11-6:12, it isn’t any heinous crime of sexual immorality or idolatry that prompts the warning against “falling away” and the potential loss of salvation, but their lazy, superficial piety and their growing complacency. Their lack of interest indicated a deeper degradation of their faith, and so it was their neglect and failure to learn and mature which threatened to endanger them, not any overt sin.
But, virtually every institution of Christianity we know teaches and operates according to a “gospel” which insists that grace precludes effort, and that any such effort would be sinful, even.
It tells us that if we merely believe, we can safely put questions of God and the afterlife behind us while we put Christianity and the Bible to use as vehicles to serve our worldly interests and to meet our earthly needs, and we count ourselves “saved” if our social lives and political opinions have the church’s stamp of approval.
So when we come across passages in the Bible like Peter’s instruction to “make every effort,” we qualify it to the point that it’s utterly meaningless, then downplay it, or just ignore it entirely. We make that effort optional to salvation: we don’t actually have to make that effort, we tell ourselves and each other. That’s just if we want to be effective and productive in our knowledge of Jesus Christ. And being effective and productive are completely optional. Sure, we might wind up nearsighted and blind and forget that we’ve been cleansed from our past sins, but that’s still cool. As long as we really, really believed at some point, we’re still saved, right? The divine hand-stamp that gets us into heaven doesn’t wash-off, does it?
If we continue through Peter’s epistle to the next chapter, we’ll read about those who have “escaped the corruption of the world through their knowledge (again, from the Greek epignosis) of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome,” who are then “worse off at the end than they were at the beginning,” and that “it would have been better for them not to have known (epiginosko) the way of righteousness than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.”
The meaning of this passage (and multiple other passages like it) is plain, unambiguous, and clear, especially when we consider it in light of the opening passage of Peter’s letter: he wrote that it is through knowledge of the One who called us by His own glory and excellence that we receive the promises through which we may participate in the Divine Nature and escape the corruption of the world (theosis and kenosis).
The word for “knowledge” in that first passage is epignosis from “epi-”, meaning “at” or “upon,” which intensifies the “gnosis,” meaning “knowledge.” Some translators render it “true knowledge,” and in virtually every appearance of the word in the New Testament, whenever it’s used with regard to a person’s knowledge of God or of Christ, it explicitly accompanies salvation.
The same word is used for the knowledge by which the people described in the later passage escaped the corruption of the world, only to be entangled in it again and overcome. Peter did not use the basic word gnosis, which could be interpreted as a general, merely academic knowledge of Jesus Christ. He used epignosis, which goes beyond general knowledge to intimate and personal experiential knowledge of God and Christ, which is the knowledge that is eternal life.
But we can’t accept the plain meaning of this passage within the model of salvation offered by our popular “gospel.” So, we lawyer it: we look for wiggle-room to qualify it somehow and to twist the meaning to say that they didn’t really, really know Him, and so “they were never really saved to begin with.” And so we feel safe in our complacency and passivity and in the assurance that we can live however we please and presume upon His forgiveness and look forward to a trouble-free afterlife, and it’s as if Peter and the others never wrote any warnings to Christians at all…
If that’s the case, though, why would they be worse off than if they had never known (epiginosko) the way of righteousness to begin with? Why would they be worse off at the end than they were at the beginning? If they were never really saved to begin with, then what would they have actually lost? Wouldn’t the potential still remain for them to be saved for real one day?
It doesn’t really matter what arguments we bring to the discussion, though. The innumerable passages that explicitly refute our popular paradigm of salvation are already plain enough without me or anybody else having to spell out their meaning, and if people are willing to resort to the aforementioned cognitive dissonance and hermeneutic gymnastics in the first place, they’ll just keep right on tumbling and contorting when we press them on it…
Consequently, we don’t, collectively, heed the apostles’ exhortations toward discipline and effort. We don’t pursue holiness and participation in the Divine Nature as necessities. And so we don’t undertake the dual processes of kenosis and theosis, and so we don’t undergo the transformation described in scripture that characterized the early Church and should characterize us, and so we don’t actually live any differently than we would if we had never even heard of Jesus Christ, and so we don’t function as the “Body of Christ” to carry-out our God-given mission to save the world.
We have a hollow, dead, and withered husk of Christianity with none of the Life we were promised, because we refuse to accept the actual terms of that promise. Instead, we project our own promises in their place, and if they’re promises God actually made, we strip them of His conditions. As a result, our “evangelism” amounts to nothing but self-serving propaganda, our “discipleship” is nothing but pop-psychology self-help couched in pious rhetoric, and our outreach ministries are all-too-often just another pretense to serve our collective habit of playing “Christian.”
And when we’re confronted by the fruits of this caricature of Christianity that we practice, we take refuge in the security supposedly offered by our “gospel,” expressed in pithy slogans like, “Christians Aren’t Perfect; Just Forgiven…” And we continue to uphold the status quo of popular Christianity because it meets our needs and we don’t want to risk that by rocking the boat.
We are in the exact same state of denial and self-delusion as the people of Judah thousands of years ago. Upon being confronted by the prophet Jeremiah for the fact that they lived no differently than their godless, idol-worshipping neighbors, they resorted to the same hermeneutic gymnastics we do by taking refuge in the security they believed they had in their religion.
So the prophet stood at the gates of the temple and proclaimed, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your deeds, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’”
As we know, they rejected his warning, and God sent the Babylonians to destroy the very temple in which they sought their license to ignore Him.
The same pattern repeated itself in the days of Jesus when they rejected their Messiah in favor of their religion, and the temple and the nation were destroyed yet again, this time by the Romans.
For any Christians reading this, our cultural conditioning is likely to assert itself at this point and we’ll want to make ourselves feel safe by the objection, “But that was the old covenant…!” Under the new covenant (it is commonly taught), God never ever punishes us or gets angry, and we’re guaranteed a free pass: “The gospel of the Lord, the gospel of the Lord, the gospel of the Lord!” we’ll protest.
Yet, the apostle Paul referenced such episodes in his warnings to Christians, and he offered no qualification when he did so: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, upon whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” he wrote.
Regarding the people of Israel’s most recent estrangement from God, he wrote, “They were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either. Consider, therefore, the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided you continue in His kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off.”
Writing to Christians—sincere Christians whose faith was renowned throughout the known world, no less—Paul told them to be afraid.
And so should we be afraid, because we are no different than the crowds of half-hearted enthusiasts who readily acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah… but only because their stomachs told them to, while they were completely oblivious to the needs of the spirit, because their institutions promised that those needs were already met.
Just like them, we stand in danger of losing our “temple,” so to speak.
I don’t know if God plans to send an invading army to raze our megachurches to the ground and scatter our population as He did with the Jews, though. That isn’t to say with any certainty that He won’t, but if that’s His plan, He hasn’t included me in that loop (maybe Pat Robertson knows something I don’t, though…).
But, Christianity has been in steep, steady decline in recent decades, and at the rate we’re going, it’s questionable if it will even exist on this continent within a generation or two.
I think that’s largely because people are catching on to the fact that in its current configuration, Christianity doesn’t offer anything that can’t be found just as easily by joining a bowling league or by looking to sci-fi and fantasy for “spirituality” and identity. People are catching on to the fact that all we’ve been offering, for the most part, is smoke and mirrors and man-made convention, and if that’s the case, any man-made convention will do.
But—also just like the Israelites and the Jews—we don’t have to lose our place or have our temple destroyed. We can repent. We can be restored.
I hope it’s clear by now, though, that our restoration won’t come just through a few minor tweakages, like teaching better apologetics and chucking “Once Saved, Always Saved”…
Those two steps would bring certain improvements, but the errors that would correct in our present configuration are only symptoms of our deeper problem, which is that our “gospel” offers only “food that spoils,” with little to none of the “food that endures to eternal life.”
Individual tweakages won’t correct that. Instead of waiting for God’s judgment through the destruction of our “temple,” we need to tear it down ourselves so that we can rebuild it from the ground up.
In other words, our entire paradigm of “Christianity” and “religion” needs to be destroyed, overhauled, and reinvented.
And, on some level, we already know this. Or, at least, we know that there is something profoundly wrong with “Christianity” as we know it, as evidenced by the endless supply of new books competing for space on the shelves of the Religion-section of any given retail bookstore, all offering different and conflicting ideas on what’s wrong with American Christianity and how to fix it. The Emergent Church-movement, for all of its faults, is an encouraging testament to the fact that we at least acknowledge that there is a problem.
It seems that we’re constantly praying for, preaching, and writing about our need for revival, yet it never really comes.
And, I don’t expect that it will. At least, not the way we’re going about it. The fact that we expect it to, though, I think, is another symptom of our ailment.
We’re conditioned by our popular “gospel” to believe that whatever it is God intends for us, we should sit back and wait for it, and when it comes, it will come packaged in sermon-form so that we can passively accept it from the security of our pew with the safe assurance of our leaders’ and peers’ approval.
To be fair, though, it isn’t just our “gospel” to blame. It’s our entire way of life. As a nation, we wage war through a television screen, and we bear witness to social upheaval and to the bloody rise and fall of nations from the safety and comfort of our living rooms. Our political activism amounts to clicking on “Like” and “Share” buttons.
I don’t write this in the interest of fault-finding, though (I watch TV news and share FB posts, too). I only write it as a caution against merely agreeing with me (which I would assume you do, to some degree, if you’re still reading), but doing nothing about it.
The revolution for which we hope will not come to us. We can’t expect our pastors and leaders to just wake up and see the light one day as we sit idly in our pews, tacitly supporting them by our silent, compliant acceptance of whatever they happen to offer on Sunday morning.
As the man said, “The revolution will not be televised.” If we want change to happen, we’ll have to get off our asses. We can’t be spectators; we have to get in the game.
“So, how do we do that? What do we do?” would be the logical next set of questions.
To be honest… I wish I knew.
I actually started writing this blog entry weeks ago, and every time I’ve come back to this section, I’ve been at a loss. I’ve actually written, like, six different conclusions to this, but none of them seem adequate. The fact is, apart from spreading awareness about the problem, I don’t know what to do, so I don’t know what, specifically, to advise others to do…
I think I know what it would look like after the revolution happens, though. I couldn’t begin to paint a comprehensive picture of what a healthy and fully-functional 21st-century version of the Church would look like (and I wouldn’t expect anybody to read all of that at once, anyway), but I think I can provide a glimpse—appropriately enough—through the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Of course, we have this ritual we call “Communion” or “the Lord’s Supper,” by which we satisfy ourselves that we’ve heeded Jesus’ instruction to “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood.”
I think it bears more resemblance to a pagan ritual of sympathetic magic than it does to anything that would be recognizable to the Christians who originally observed the sacrament, though.
Sympathetic magic operates on the belief that ceremonial objects bear a mystical correspondence to items, persons, or forces beyond the ritual itself, so that by manipulating the objects within the ritual, a magician thereby manipulates whatever it is the objects are believed to represent. A voodoo doll would be a classic example: if you poke the doll with a needle, it’s supposed to harm the person the doll represents. Another example would be the shrine prostitution practiced by ancient worshipers of Baal and Ashtoreth, but… well, you’ll just have to look that up yourself if you really want to know. Make sure there are no minors near your computer when you do, though.
The doctrine of transubstantiation is essentially a practice of sympathetic magic: by uttering an incantation over the wine and wafers, a priest is believed to be able to call the body and blood of Christ down from heaven to mystically transform the substance of the elements, so that consuming them is literally the same as to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.
Not every church subscribes to the doctrine of transubstantiation, but the ritual order of the Communion service is basically the same between those that do and those that don’t, and the significance is essentially the same either way: to undergo this ritual, Christians believe, is what it means to obey Christ’s instruction to “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood.”
Personally, I’m ambivalent and conflicted about this. At the moment, I’m straddling the fence between rejecting it outright as a legalistic falsehood that degrades the very concept of Communion, or continuing to practice it as something at least partially good, but just not fully what was intended. I haven’t decided yet. Maybe writing this out will help me crystallize my thoughts on it.
A couple of months ago I went to lunch with a longtime friend after church, where, incidentally, they did a Communion service. I mean, the Communion service was incidental to our lunch; not that it was entirely incidental to what I’m writing…
While we were eating and we talked about the church service we’d just attended, I mentioned a particular practice of this church to which I take strong exception (it wasn’t their take on Communion, incidentally, but for our purposes, it doesn’t matter what it was).
Now, my friend and I see eye-to-eye on most things, but this wasn’t one of those things. He declared that he “liked” this practice, and believed it to be “good” and “biblical.”
This might be considered rude on my part if it hadn’t been with a longtime friend, but I disputed the practice in question because I thought it neither justifiable in scripture, nor anything less than destructive to the purpose of the correct practice that should be observed in its place.
To that, my friend merely shrugged and answered, “And you are welcome to think that…”
That was the end of our discussion on the matter. After a brief, uncomfortable pause, we went on to banter about girls or superhero movies or some other trivia, but the matter of our doctrinal difference was not revisited.
He’d made it clear that it wasn’t open for discussion, and that he cared neither for my thoughts on why it was wrong, nor for any questions I had about why he thought it right. He liked it, wanted to believe in it, and that was all there was to it. End of discussion.
Of course, we’ve all had conversations like that, so I’m sure none of that sounds like a big deal, so you might be wondering why I’d bother telling you about it.
Well, it wasn’t that my feelings were hurt… although I am a pretty sensitive, emotionally-attuned guy, so I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little put off by it (I’m the manly sensitive –type, though…). But, that’s not really the point.
The point is that we were two Christians who had just taken Communion service but, in that moment, couldn’t talk about Christianity with each other.
And, that’s problematic, especially when we consider the Communion ritual as it was originally observed.
As it was originally practiced, it was not a massive, impersonal ritual in which strangers lined up for a nibble of cracker and a thimble of grape juice to swallow after a few seconds of private contemplation.
No, it was a full-course fellowship meal. It was Christians sitting down to feast together.
Paul said that it was observed in an “unworthy manner” if there was disunity and selfishness among the people in attendance. A man was to “examine himself” and “recognize the body of the Lord” before partaking.
I don’t think that meant, necessarily, that you have make sure you feel sorry for your sins before you partake. It meant that you recognize the body of the Lord—in the bread and wine, and in the Christians sitting at the table with you. The “body of Christ,” after all, wasn’t only present in the bread, but in the people of the Church, and a person “eats his flesh” and “drinks his blood” by partaking of the fellowship of those who belong to Christ, more so, even, than by the bread and wine. The bread and wine are taken as part of the meal, as reminders that “this is who we are,” “this is why we are here.”
The bread and wine—his body and blood—are to remind us that we are not our own, but belong to each other. None of us has the right to believe what we want, because we are not our own, and if personal preference was our doorway into “Christianity,” then we’re not really practicing Christianity.
The word “heresy,” after all (from the Greek hairesis), literally translates as “that which is chosen” or “that which is preferred.” Heresy and opinion are synonymous. “Heresy” isn’t necessarily “false doctrine,” per se, but the muddling of truth with personal interpretation and opinion. That was what Peter condemned before his warning about falling prey to the entanglements of the world again… which is what happens when we forget that faith means conforming ourselves to God’s truth, not the other way around.
Before our fellow man, yes—we have a legal, social, and cultural right to our own beliefs, and nobody has any right to impose anything upon us. But before God? No, we only have a right to believe what is true—what we can honestly justify before Him, with the faculties He has given us. And, by extension, we have no right before our fellow Christians to believe anything but what is true, because He is present to us through one another.
The resurrection—as a rational, objective, and knowable fact—is the foundation, the touchstone, of everything it means to be “Christian.” It can be shared and communicated because it’s objective, because it happened within concrete reality. It can be justified by reason, in other words.
Faith, then, is what it means to “make every effort,” as Peter said, to integrate the truth of the resurrection into our lives, and that effort is so monumental and consuming that no individual person can undertake it alone. That’s why we have the Lord’s Supper as a way to do that: we come together in fellowship, recognized and reinforced through the bread and wine, to help one another to participate and grow in the New Life, largely by keeping each other honest and accountable.
So, when my friend declared simply that he believed what he believed because he liked it, it was a denial of that process.
And, to be fair, it’s entirely possible that I denied that process somehow by the way that I brought it up. I can be hard to get along with sometimes. I get that.
Whoever’s fault it was, though—there was a barrier between us because of it. Whatever “fellowship” we had after that exchange was not Christian fellowship, because our common belonging to Christ had nothing to do with what followed. Whatever food we ate in that moment wasn’t the Bread of Life offered by our Lord, but merely food that spoils.