By now, the enormous contrast between what we read about the Church in the New Testament and in the early centuries of Christian history and what we see and experience of it in the 21st century should be shockingly conspicuous.
(By the way, if you haven’t read Part I, you might want to do that first, as none of this will be of any use to you otherwise. And, if you haven’t read the two previous entries about Fideism and the false gospel of Doctrinal Correctness, Part I won’t be of much use to you, either.)
Do we think of ourselves as “the Messiah”?
We have a doctrine we affirm with regard to the Church, and we use the expression “the Body of Christ” to refer to it/ourselves, but is that what we actually experience? Is that what we have in mind on Sunday mornings when we carry out this weekly exercise known as “going to church”?
The Church is indistinguishable from and identical to the Messiah if it is functional as the Church, but is it functional today?
And I want to emphasize that “functionality” is the operative concept here – I’m not talking about a perfect Church full of perfect people. I’m only talking about a Church that’s functional according to the New Testament. The churches in Corinth and Ephesus had some serious problems, but they were still true to the purpose for which they were founded, which was to actively train their members toward Christ-likeness – in their participation in the divine nature.
Does anyone think the Church today is doing that?
I don’t know many people who would seriously or honestly argue that it is, but for the rare few who would, there is plenty of statistical evidence accessible through a five-minute Internet search to conclusively demonstrate that, apart from our sheep’s clothing, we don’t actually live any differently than the wolves. We aren’t known for the agape we show one another or the world, nor for living lives any holier or better than our “lost” neighbors.
We have a doctrine we affirm about what the Church is supposed to be, but as we discussed in my two previous entries, our popular definitions of the terms and concepts we find in the Bible leave much to be desired.
Instead of a trust based on the evidence of God’s past faithfulness, our concept of “faith,” as it relates to how we know things (epistemology), more often than not means blind faith.
Instead of a faith that leads to obedience and total investment in God’s promises and purposes, as it relates to how we’re saved (soteriology), “faith” typically amounts to mere doctrinal correctness, which is set in opposition to works, good deeds and action of any kind.
All of this adds up to a so-called “gospel” that tells us to believe for no reason and to do nothing about it in order to be “saved.”
And by “saved,” we typically mean “going to heaven as a disembodied ‘soul’ when we die instead of hell” – an idea we don’t actually find in the Bible. That’s something that crept into Christianity from Greco-Roman culture. If we already have the idea that “going to heaven when we die” is what Christianity is all about, there are plenty of passages that seem to reinforce it, if we don’t look too closely. But we would never get that idea from the Bible itself if we didn’t first import it from elsewhere.
When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians so they wouldn’t “grieve like the rest of men who have no hope” over those who had died, he didn’t assure them that their dead were “in a better place now.” No, the hope was resurrection – those who were “asleep” would awaken to life when Christ returns and raises them bodily, as he had been raised. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
It wasn’t about “dying and going to heaven” – it was about heaven coming here to earth. It’s right there in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your Name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”
That’s what the Church is: the advance force of God’s invasion.
Our job is to transform this world into heaven, and it begins with ourselves individually and collectively as the Church, but continues by transforming society from within – not by taking control of the government and imposing so-called “Christian” laws or by electing “Christian leaders,” but by educating and persuading the world about the rightness of God’s ways and Christ’s teachings, largely by modeling it first in ourselves. The transformation happens from the bottom up, not from the top down.
It isn’t about passively waiting to die so we can go to heaven; it’s about resurrection, and according to Paul (Philippians 3:10-14), resurrection is something to strive for by working out our salvation with fear and trembling through our participation in the divine nature.
In order to participate in the world to come, we have to believe in it – now, which means investing in it. And it’s not a burden to invest in it: if we genuinely believe God raised Jesus from the dead in glory and immortality and promises the same to us, investing in it – investing in him – should be our highest joy… if we genuinely believe that.
So, how did we get this way?
Why is there such an enormous contrast between the original Church and what we experience of it today?
Why is it that – despite reading exhortation after exhortation in the New Testament urging us to action, warning us against complacency, instructing us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” and to spare no effort in striving toward the goal to which Christ has called us heavenward…
Why is it that we’re constantly hearing the opposite message from the pulpit?
There was an energy and urgency toward that effort that characterized the original Church, which leaps forcibly off the pages of the New Testament, yet all of our modern systematic theologies and Sunday-morning sermons seem to be geared to blunting and reversing that energy.
Passages like those I just referenced are acknowledged, except never without a “but…” attached. They’re always mentioned with various caveats and qualifiers that collectively say, “Well, sure – if you really, really believe, you’ll respond with good deeds… but you don’t have to. None of that is necessary to salvation. As long as the feelings are sincere, effort is optional.”
The Perennial Question of Fallen Man
So how did we get here?
The answer can be found in human psychology, basic economics, and the Protestant Reformation, along with other instructive periods of history…
People tend to follow the path of least resistance, and they tend to want the most value for the least cost: if we can get two of something for the price of one, or a bigger house for the price of a smaller one, a full-time salary for the effort of part-time work, etc., we will. That only makes sense and we’d be foolish to do otherwise when the opportunity arises.
It makes plenty of sense when we’re talking about commerce and economics, but it’s a deplorable way to conduct ourselves in interpersonal relationships.
If you love someone, you want to give the best of yourself, and you’ll want the same from them. A man who does the least expected to love and honor his wife – who does no more than snatch a rose from the neighbors’ garden as a token gesture on their anniversary so he can go back to fishing or watching football, satisfied he’s done his duty – isn’t a very good husband, to say the least. A friend who only sees you when they need something or who’s only around when the weather’s fair and nothing better comes up, is no friend at all.
When a “good enough for government work”-mentality characterizes a marriage or friendship, divorce and estrangement are inevitable, because giving the least you can for someone’s loyalty and affection isn’t love or friendship – it’s exploitation.
“It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” is a common refrain among churchgoers, yet this mentality is precisely the attitude we bring to our religion:
“What’s the least I have to do to placate God – to get Him off my back, so I can get to the stuff I’m really interested in without having to worry about what’s going to happen to me when I die?”
That’s the underlying question behind much of our popular approach to religion.
That was the real question the rich young man had in mind when he asked Jesus, “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16)
He wasn’t really interested in God or in what Jesus really had to offer – he just wanted to be able to enjoy the pleasures of this world afforded him by his wealth, free of concern about the next, which is why he went away grieving when Jesus told him to give all that up.
That was the mentality behind the religious leaders’ question about justification for divorce (Matthew 19:3). They weren’t interested in pursuing God’s original, perfect intention for marriage or His wisdom for Jewish family life – they wanted to know what they could get away with without being disqualified from the favored status they believed they had with God.
That was the mentality at work within the Reformation-era Catholic Church. Salvation (or the empty promise of it, at least) was literally sold: a certain quantity of money could get you released from purgatory, supposedly, and the price fluctuated according to the Church’s cash-flow needs at any given time, and it had absolutely nothing to do with getting anybody any closer to God.
Of course, it wasn’t packaged in such crass terms. Exploitation rarely is. No, giving “alms” (as they euphemistically called it) was a sign of deep contrition over sin, they said, for which the Church, in its great mercy and generosity toward weak sinners, granted the indulgence of early release from punishment in the afterlife. Packaged in such lofty, pious rhetoric, it sounded perfectly reasonable and appropriate, especially when it came from such trusted exemplars of virtue and godliness as the Roman Catholic priesthood. And it sold, because giving money is a less resistant path than repentance and personal growth.
Maxims of Modern Minimalist McChristianity
Sadly, this pattern hasn’t changed in 500 years, and the religious free market has met the ever-present demand for cut-rate fire insurance.
The Protestant Reformation was about rescuing Christianity from the legalism, empty ritual and priestcraft that characterized the Roman Catholic Church, and Reformed theologians developed what are known as the “Five Solae” as correctives against those abuses:
–Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
–Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
–Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
–Sola Christus (Christ alone)
–Sola Deo Gloria (Glory to God Alone)
The Five Solae made a lot of sense within the context of the religious battles of 500 years ago. They make less sense now – at least, in the sense that we commonly understand and teach them.
When they’re used to answer that perennial question of fallen man, “What’s the least I have to do to get into heaven?” they become no different and no better than the “salvation-for-sale” extortion racket they were devised to correct.
We’ve already discussed Sola Fide at length, and how it’s been perverted by our erroneous definition of “faith.” We are justified by faith alone, but not by what passes for faith today.
We’ve likewise corrupted Sola Gratia.
“We didn’t do anything to earn our salvation, so there’s nothing we can do to add to it” is a common refrain. Our concept of “grace” has it that if anything whatsoever is required on our part, then “it isn’t really grace at all,” but heretical “works-based salvation.”
Of course, this defies common sense, common decency, and the Scriptures.
It was by God’s grace alone that the rains came in season to water their crops, enabling them to feed themselves and their livestock (Acts 14:17). It wasn’t dismissed as “not grace at all” because they were required to sow and harvest and tend to their livestock in order to benefit from it. That they had the strength to work in the first place was also considered “by grace alone” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).
Sola Gratia is true in that it is only by God’s grace that we can be saved. But the New Testament writers clearly didn’t think that because Christ’s work was “by grace alone,” nothing else would be required of them, and they would have been appalled at our reasoning today.
Contrasted against the papacy and the Catholic notion of the pope speaking ex cathedra, the maxim of Sola Scriptura was a necessary corrective, declaring that it is the Scriptures, rather than the Roman Catholic Church, where divine authority and instruction reside.
It’s ironic, then, that if you ask your typical American evangelical Protestant why it is that they accept the Bible as authoritative, rather than the pope or the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Sutras, he is very likely to tell you that it’s because it’s what he’s been told in church all his life (see the previous entry on Fideism for a more comprehensive discussion of this, though)…
But, the notion of Sola Scriptura (at least, as it’s commonly understood today) represents a false dichotomy.
There is no material difference between Church and Scripture – the New Testament is canonical precisely because its constituent writings were produced by and represent the thoughts, teachings and example of the original Church.
Much of the New Testament was written by the apostle Paul, but even as he gave us some of its most important components in the form of his letters, those writings were only a consolation in lieu of a personal visit. He thought being there in person would have been of more value than sending a letter, but since circumstances prevented that, he offered the next best thing (Romans 1:8-15 and 1 Thessalonians 2:17-19).
Contrary to what many within the Church today suppose, Paul was not a means to an end – the “end” being the production of holy writ. It’s the other way around: the holy writ is a means to get us nearer to the person of Paul, who is himself an avenue to getting us closer to the One who handpicked Paul as his personal representative.
The point is that the Scriptures must be embodied in us, because they represent the ideas and example embodied in the writers, in order to be of value. Otherwise, they’re just ink on paper – of no more significance or importance than a phonebook.
The dichotomy set up by Sola Scriptura is the equivalent of comparing the importance of blueprints against the building itself. Obviously, the blueprints are only important insofar as they’re used to construct and maintain the building, and without the building, blueprints only offer the idea of a building, with none of the shelter and function of an actual structure.
Likewise, separating Scripture from Church gives us only an abstract concept of Christianity, with no concrete reality.
Which brings us to the next Sola…
Considering the sacerdotalism of 16th-century Roman Catholicism – the idea of a class of professional Christians known as “priests” who intervene with God on behalf of the larger body of believers, with the so-called “Vicar (substitute) of Christ” (the pope) as their head – it needed to be reasserted that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man, hence the maxim of Sola Christus.
Yet, it should be glaringly obvious by now that there remains a great deal still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, the Church, and that Sola Christus is a tragic error if it’s taken to divorce the Church and the individual believer from the work of Christ in the world.
And, in fact, it has. Christ is the only mediator, but as the Church, we are Christ. If we don’t mediate between God and the world, it will not be done.
Lastly, after centuries of appropriating pagan deities and rebranding them as “saints” as a marketing tactic (read about the origins of Santa Claus, for example, if you don’t know what I’m talking about), the Roman Catholic Church bore more resemblance to the polytheistic religions of ancient Rome than to the Church founded by the apostles, so Sola Deo Gloria was a necessary corrective to restore essential monotheism – to bring the focus back to God and His glory.
Yet, the Reformers might have overcorrected – or we overcorrected in our understanding of Sola Deo Gloria – and ignored one of the central promises of God.
The word “glory” (Greek doxa) shows up 125 times in the New Testament. Most often, as expected, it refers to the glory of God and of Christ. But in more than one-in-five instances, it refers to the “glory” that will come to us, Christ’s followers – his brothers and sisters who, as heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, will share in his glory.
We’ve largely ignored that promise, though, and in so doing, we’ve neglected a central, essential aspect of God’s promise of salvation and His plan for the Church, “which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
In summary, our popular understanding of the Five Solae excludes much of what constitutes biblical ecclesiology, because it’s our common tendency to interpret everything through the filter of what I’ve called “the perennial question of fallen man.”
By identifying five elements and drawing a box around them, saying, “This and only this,” and declaring anything more as heretical, and then defining each element in the most restrictive, reductive manner possible, we’ve created a minimalist, fast-food version of Christianity – one shaped by market forces to demand as little as possible from the religious consumer.
In our popular understanding, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia mean all we have to do is believe and God does the rest. What we believe is determined – and with no rational justification whatsoever – by Sola Scriptura, and Sola Christus and Sola Deo Gloria mean we take no part, take no credit, and therefore, take no responsibility.
In other words, we relegate human beings to mere passive objects in God’s supposed plan of salvation.
Gepetto, or the Blue Fairy?
And this doesn’t present a particularly glorifying depiction of God.
As passive objects, we’re just puppets controlled by strings. Except, the God we see in the Bible isn’t like Gepetto at all. God creates life – not a crude facsimile of it. He created humans in His own image, to be active agents of history and of His plan.
The pattern we see in Scripture is that God never acts in history without doing so through human agency.
He created Adam to participate with Him in the work of creation, in a fashion, by naming the animals, and by filling the earth and subduing it.
It was certainly within God’s power to preserve animal life through the flood, yet He delegated that role to Noah.
It was within His power to reintroduce monotheism among the nations – He could have done it by way of angels, through signs, through a loud, booming voice from the sky. Yet, He anointed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be the bearers of that message.
Likewise, He could have simply appeared outside of Egypt as a pillar of fire and announced the exodus of the Israelites directly and prevented Pharaoh from interfering. But He sent Moses to act on His behalf. Then Joshua, the Judges, the Kings, the Prophets, and finally, when His plan called for work impossible for any fallen mortal, He actually became a human being Himself, and then put His Nature into people to act on His behalf, giving us power on Earth and in Heaven.
Man severed the relationship with God. Unless God compromises His justice and becomes less than holy, it must therefore be man who restores the relationship and repairs the damage. Man corrupted the earth; it must be man who renews and restores it. And if we don’t do it, it won’t be done.
Of course, this runs directly contrary to accepted orthodoxy, which teaches that God does it all, and we do nothing, because we’re helpless – too sinful and fallen and corrupt for our works to amount to anything.
Yes, Paul said as much – because of the sin living in us, the good we want to do we cannot do, but the evil we don’t want to do we keep on doing.
Clearly, though, that’s not all he said. No one should ever read – and especially shouldn’t quote – Romans 7 without also including Romans 8: “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 man,” he continued.
“You, however, are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you… And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you,” Paul also said.
Prior to salvation, we are helpless. We’re nothing but puppets moved by the strings of animal instinct and appetite.
After salvation, we’re sons and daughters of God – we are immortal, all-powerful, bearing the very Nature of God within us, which means we’re to do the things God Himself would do in our place, loving what He loves, hating what He hates,
That means we are the Messiah.
Rehabilitating Our Delinquent Messiah
Of course, all of this sounds impossible. But if we’re only doing what’s possible, aren’t we just faking our faith? If you’re not attempting the impossible, you don’t really have faith in the all-powerful, living God who raises the dead.
It was such faith that prompted Jesus to tell Peter, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”
Gates, of course, were common features of walled cities back then. The illustration was of hell as a fortress, and the church breaking down its gates to conquer the city within.
In other words, we are meant to wage an aggressive war against the forces of darkness in this world.
That’s supposed to be the Church’s role: we exist to oppose the evil in the world and undo its damage.
We see a lot of that damage in the various social ills besetting our civilization, but the real problems are from human nature – not knowing right from wrong and not having the moral character to apply that knowledge in the first place.
“My people perish from lack of knowledge,” said the prophet (Hosea 4:6).
And as we look to our own country, leftists typically blame social evils like crime on external factors like poverty, and then blame poverty on rich people, thinking the answer is for the government to confiscate and redistribute wealth.
There are myriad erroneous assumptions about economics and about the proper role of government behind that mentality, but what concerns us is here is the erroneous assumption about human nature – that it’s basically good, and if we just had the right people in charge, the right system in place, and the right laws and government programs in effect, all would be well.
In reality, though, our increasing poverty, and all of the resultant social ills that come with it, come from increasing sin – sexual sin in particular.
An unpopular but glaringly obvious fact is that there is a clear link between out-of-wedlock births and poverty, and where the former increases, so does the latter.
And, out-of-wedlock births are on the rise, and will soon be the majority of births in many places in the western world. And that means poverty is on the rise and our way of life is going to decline… unless we do something about it.
And it falls to the Church to do that something, because no amount of government intervention can (or should) change people’s sexual behavior.
The Church’s role is not just to teach Christian sexual morality, though. It’s already doing that, and it’s not working, even (especially, actually) among self-identified Christians.
No, its role is to give people the New Life that enables them to live by that morality.
The symptoms of poverty have to be treated now, but ultimately, government handouts won’t help, nor, even, will Christian charitable efforts. What people need is to “escape the corruption of the world” caused by theirs and others’ appetites by participating in the divine nature.
Similarly, gun control laws will not stop or even curb violence and school shootings – at least, not without paying for it in other forms of violence. A transformation of human nature will.
Every single social problem we have can be traced back to our fallen nature and the Church’s failure to address it, and these problems threaten to overwhelm us.
If the Church were functional, though, not only could we save ourselves from the corruption threatening to overtake us, but we – the community of believers within the richest, most prosperous and powerful nation the world has ever seen – could pool our considerable resources and completely eliminate poverty in this country and beyond.
The engine for all of that is discipleship – mentoring people in their participation in the divine nature.
But discipleship – in the true, New Testament sense – requires absolute, unreserved commitment. And it’s a tough sell – impossible, really—getting people to make that level of commitment. At least, it’s impossible without some compelling, powerful reason.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a compelling, powerful reason, except… the Church doesn’t actually teach people why it’s true. They’re asked to suspend disbelief about it as a token of admission into church membership, in order to get their social needs met, and then told that as long as they’ve rendered that token, nothing else will ever be required of them to be “saved.”
Instead of “salvation by grace through faith, not by the works of the law,” so-called “faith” is reduced to just another kind of law – a law of doctrinal orthodoxy.
So, we don’t grow into Christ-likeness. We don’t know how. There are untold treasures of knowledge left to us by those who have gone before – Anthony the Great, the Desert Fathers, John of the Cross and countless other teachers in the ways of kenosis and theosis and of arête and agape. But, American evangelicals tend to dismiss this priceless body of knowledge as nothing but pre-Reformation “works’-based heresy,” because we don’t even understand why we need it, because we’re content to merely play “Christian,” complacent in our supposed doctrinal orthodoxy as long as we’re getting our social needs met at church. Our minds are set, not on the things of God, but on the things of man, because our god is our stomach and our attentions are on earthly things.
Unless… we’re not content.
And, in fact, I don’t think we are, and that’s why people are leaving the Church in droves, many of whom are, unfortunately, turning aside to New Atheism with a vengeance.
For those who are still going to church, but feel the same sickening sense I felt for so many long years that Something Is Terribly Wrong, something is off, something just doesn’t smell right – pay close attention the next time you go to church.
Listen to the sermon and ask yourself, “Is this really the word of God? Is this conducive to the true purpose of the Church? Is this pertinent to the things of God, or merely the things of man? Is this to help me participate in the divine nature, or just my appetites?”
Ask yourself, and pray about it.
If you don’t like the answer, what will you do about it?
Will you keep living a lie?
Or will you risk not getting your social needs met by leaving the broad path for the narrow?
Will you try to “save your life” and thereby lose it? Or will you lose your life for his sake, and thereby find it?
If enough of us decide we’re finished tolerating a dead church, a phony Christianity and a false messiah – if we decide we’re don’t want to play “Christian” anymore – we can turn it all around. We have that power within us.
I know that Christ longs for his Bride to turn back to him – he’s pining for us to be faithful to him, so that we can be “one flesh,” one Body again.
Anyone who knows the heart-wrenching anguish of being in love when that love is unrequited – especially if she (or he) gives herself to other lovers, all the while claiming loyalty to you – has a sense of how Christ must feel about the state of his Bride today… multiplied by infinity, to the infinitieth power.
But, imagine how you would feel if the one you love finally declared her love for you? Imagine the rapturous joy, the transformative renewal of life, the ecstatic gratitude, and the affection you would lavish upon her. That should give you a sense of the power and glory that await us if we turn back to him – multiplied by infinity, to the infinitieth power.
What’s more, consider how in the 1st century, the vast network of Roman roads and the travel protections afforded by the Roman military provided the perfect circumstances for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the western world. Now, consider what we could accomplish today, through the World Wide Web, if we turn back to him.
If we turn back to him, we can remake the world. We can have God’s Kingdom on Earth, within our lifetimes.