The God We Cannot Hear

CC BY-NC, davidgsteadman, Flickr
CC BY-NC, davidgsteadman, Flickr

I drew comparison between a parable of Jesus and an idea being debated in a group discussion. A person quickly replied, “You can easily use a scripture to justify your own point.” It was the last statement of the session before we all dispersed; however, I left a little irritated.

The comment offended me for a few reasons. First, it came from a person who knows me very well, my love of the scriptures and diligence with them. So it peeved me that he could think that I should be guilty of sloppy study and a sleazy hermeneutic. His comment was a slap in the face that charged, “You’re like the rest of ‘em, twisting God’s words to prove your own point.”

Second, I recognized how that attitude renders Holy Scripture an abstruse, even esoteric, text irrelevant to 21st century life and modern thought. For either we believe as Solomon said—“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”—and accept that moral and ethical values have been fairly consistent throughout history, making the wisdom of the Bible very much relevant for us today; or we deem life now and ourselves to be exceptional and devalue the Bible and all historical wisdom since they cannot make sense of our experience.

In that case, my only advice to my friend would be, “Okay, just make sure you never use the Bible or some ancient proverb to make a point”—or to live by. We cannot have it both ways, or feel that God’s words comport with any measure of moral relativism.

The truly frightening thing is the possibility that some of us have made the scriptures to say only what we’ve cared to hear. Yet in so doing, we would have merely elucidated falsehoods, which is something Jesus tackles in his Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard it said”—because oral tradition, reinterpretation, and commentary had altered and appended God’s own words to claim something he had not said—“but I say unto you…” Jesus’s point stands: don’t misconstrue God’s sentiments. And don’t use him to push your own program but chafe when the Word finally judges you.

The real issue here, in the remark made to me, is certainly not my agenda with scripture, but rather the glaring admission of a poor spiritual foundation and lack of deep study.

Friends, we are not charmers or peddlers of a religious snake oil. We haven’t died to sin and reckoned ourselves ready to die for Christ’s sake for a false hope. No, God’s words are true and powerful, very relevant to life, and will forever stand.

The Nature of Christ

"Prince of Peace" by Akiane CC BY-NC, Waiting For The Word, Flickr
“Prince of Peace” by Akiane
CC BY-NC, Waiting For The Word, Flickr

The nature of Christ rested at the center of the greatest controversies in church history and often led to the important ecumenical councils of the Church and the development of the creeds. Here we’ll discuss five major heresies regarding the nature of Christ: Ebionism, adoptionism, Nestorianism, Apollinarianism, and Eutychianism. I encourage you to consider the implications that logically proceed from these doctrines. Also, reflect on statements and teaching you’ve heard that veer close to these.

Jesus and the Christ

Christological heresies existed as early as the apostle’s ministry. A Judaizing group called the Ebionites taught that Jesus was an ordinary human possessing unusual but not superhuman or supernatural gifts. They espoused that the Christ descended upon Jesus the man at his baptism and withdrew from him near the end of his life. The doctrine resembles the teaching of Paul of Samosata who taught that the logos was not a being but was equal to what reason is in a human and merely impersonal. Jesus, so said Samosata, was uniquely indwelt by the wisdom of God and, in successive stages, grew closer in relation to him.

Samosata’s teaching is called dynamistic monarchianism, or adoptionism, and holds that this power from God came upon Jesus the man, again, at his baptism. Adoptionism opens a doorway to modern liberal theology that devalues the divinity of Jesus and teaches the recognition of human’s God consciousness.

Nestorius, on the other hand, did affirm both the divinity and humanity of Christ but insisted that the two natures not be confused but viewed as being completely distinct. Nestorius was opposed to the term theotokos, a reference to Mary as the “God-bearer.” The Alexandrian school taught that if there was in Christ a physical union of God and man, then it could be argued that Mary was the “mother of God.” Nestorius, of the Antiochene school of thought, opposed this and claimed that the logos had taken residence in Christ. The divine element in him, however, was not in his human nature.

Nestorius implied a lack of unity, stating, “I distinguish between the natures, but I worship but one [Christ].” Christian orthodoxy acknowledges both natures of Christ but that the two became one and simultaneously retained their uniqueness. It remains questionable whether Nestorius really taught what he was accused of due to the vagueness of his teaching.

Swallowed in Divinity

Apollinaris offered a truncated view of Christ’s humanity. He believed that Jesus took on genuine humanity but not all of it. Apollinaris was very concerned about maintaining the unity of the Son. He opposed Arianism—the Son was not pre-existent and was created by the Father—but ventured too far with his teaching. According to Apollinaris, Jesus was a “compound unity,” part human and the rest divine. What Jesus bore of humanity was merely his human flesh. This flesh was animated by the divine logos (spark), which replaced a human soul.

Thus, Jesus was human physically but not psychologically; his soul was divine. Jesus was essentially different from all human beings because he possessed no human soul or will nor did he possess the capability to sin because he was divinity poured into a human vessel. Further, there is a slight implication that Jesus’s flesh could have only been a mystical, docetic one, not truly subject to his overpowering divinity.

If Ebionism represents the extreme view of Jesus’s humanity, then Eutychianism is the opposite extreme. Eutyches agreed on the two natures of Christ but felt that the two became so blended in their union that there could only be one nature and it fully divine.

Apollinarianism and Eutychianism differ from the others because they hold that Jesus had one nature and not two. These two doctrines are called monophysite doctrines, meaning “one nature”; Ebionism, adoptionism, and Nestorianism are dyophysite.

Council of Chalcedon

The fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon brought an end to these disputes, specifically Eutychianism and Nestorianism. The council began on October 8, 451, and was attended by 630 bishops and deputies. After five sessions that lasted until the 31st, the council finalized the Chalcedonian Creed, one of the greatest, that further defied Christological heresy and established sound Christology.

Swedish theologian Bengt Hagglund, in his History of Theology, helps clarify the significance of the creed (in part):

We confess one and the same Son [against Nestorius, who…was believed to teach that there were ‘two sons’], our Lord Jesus Christ, who is perfect in His divinity [against dynamism, Arius, and Nestorius] and perfect in humanity…with a reasonable soul and a body [against Apollinaris who replaced Christ’s human soul with the Logos and taught that the Logos assumed a “heavenly flesh”], of one essence with the Father according to divinity…of the same essence as we according to humanity [against Eutyches]…”

The value of the Christian creeds is inestimable. The Church is triumphant over heresy today because of the great work the Fathers undertook to clarify and summarize Holy Scripture. Many groups in the Protestant Church overlook and even avoid creedalism, being speculative of it. Yet the creeds are the signet of the Church, concisely expressing theological thought contained in the scriptures. The creed is, as Cyril calls it, the “synthesis of faith” and has been a sustaining force in the existence of the Church.

What to Do About Grace

CC BY-NC, Enokson, Flickr
CC BY-NC, Enokson, Flickr

“He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Eph. 1:5-6)

I drove down the highway one morning listening to a version of Don Moen’s classic hymn “Give Thanks,” and the Holy Spirit turned a light on within me.

“Give thanks with a grateful heart

Give thanks to the Holy One

Give thanks because he’s given Jesus Christ, his Son.

 And now let the weak say, ‘I am strong!’

Let the poor say, ‘I am rich!’

Because of what the Lord has done for us.

Give thanks.”

Truthfully, I wanted to cry because I saw a clearer picture of the gospel, but I didn’t want to appear weepy-eyed where I was headed.

The Gospel Message

The scripture above refers to the grace of God having been bestowed upon us in Christ. The King James Version says, “…he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” I thought of that phrasing when I heard the declarations—“I am strong! I am rich!”—and realized how truly profound the gift of Christ is to us.

It means Jesus is enough.

Now that may not seem like anything cataclysmic to you, but it’s a weight off all our shoulders. We have gained acceptance with God in Christ. All our efforts at earning God’s approval and working our way into his favor are finished. We can cease feeling inadequate and marred and like we have to get our act together to please him. “Lord, I know I haven’t…God, I’m sorry but I…”

No, we are not condemned and need not wear guilty consciences. He lifts our chins and tells us it’s okay and invites into his joy. He did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

But What Am I to Do?

Still, we feel like we have to do something. We loathe and punish ourselves because we cannot accept the thought of simply receiving God’s selfless love and attention. We feel that we have to work our way into so rich a gift. What about our raging tempers, lying and cheating, illicit sexual habits, and various dependencies? How could he still accept us when we are yet unsure that Jesus is the way? After all, we’re still mad at him for things that happened to us all the way back in our childhood.

What are we to do with these inconsistencies?

Right here is where sound teaching is so important because we’re prone to walk away from God or live beneath our spiritual privilege. We may hang onto God, but we’ll always be trying to fix ourselves, always trying to pay a debt that has already been forgiven. If we don’t realize that the burden has been removed, we’ll continue dealing with the agony and frustration—the guilt—that comes with trying to lift it, never experiencing freedom.

A Gospel Parable

Let me show you what our responsibility looks like. Think of a person, maybe even yourself at one time, with a great financial burden—a debt. He (or she) struggled with that debt for a long time, and the debt determined so much about his life. But one day a benefactor paid off the entire bill; the indebted man owed not a cent to anyone. Then, the benefactor gave the man $10,000 to get back on his feet. All the man had to do was accept the gift.

Now the man would probably need some time to get over the incredible goodness that had happened to him, but he would be foolish not to accept the gift. There would be no need for him to stand and argue with the benefactor about all the misfortune and bad choices he made that got him to that point.

The man accepts the gift and the benefactor’s simple request that he never again return to debt. The responsibility of the man is simple. It is to prove his exceeding gratefulness by improving his knowledge about money and finances, guaranteeing the request of the benefactor.

Now…Right Now

The man with the debt, although he had been freed from it, bore a responsibility to amend his behavior and attitude toward money. It is no different with us, except our works of faith now are acts of worship to God. Let me show you.

We still have hang-ups and sin issues, but they don’t negate Christ’s work for us and in us. Our responsibility with those issues now is to understand our freedom in Christ and to rely on God’s enabling grace to build godlier character. Thereby, we love God by transforming the vile areas of our hearts into the very fruit of the Spirit. We worship him with the beauty of holy lives. But instead of doing this to earn God’s favor, we do it because of his favor already bestowed upon us.

I get emotional about this because there are many people around us, people we couldn’t guess, who secretly wish to serve God and be among the saints but feel that their lives are so bad, so messed up, that God doesn’t care to deal with them. They feel condemned and sometimes are condemned by churches and Christians that haven’t truly grasped the message of grace. But these are the weak God is calling to strength in Christ.

What shall we do with grace? Just accept it. The debt is gone. We need to get the point: we are actualized in Christ. You have wholeness now. You possess all the worth God designed for you now. Give God thanks and let your life honor him.

Also on the topic: Where Freedom Ends

His Need, Our Privilege

CC BY-NC, S.Kakos, Flickr
CC BY-NC, S.Kakos, Flickr

God inherently needs nothing and no one. Yet we would fling him beyond reach should we forget that he has done us a favor obligating himself to us. He “needs” us only because he desires us and requires himself to us.

Moreover, he has created a place for us in his plan.

He commands our worship because it benefits us and not because he lacks adoration. Ultimately, his purpose is accomplished with us and we get the joy.

Could he offer a better deal?

God shall forever be the Great Giver, limitless and generous. And I gladly resign myself to the honor of being needed by him.

Reflections on Evangelism

CC BY-NC, ajrpix, Flickr
CC BY-NC, ajrpix, Flickr

I once worked in the photo department of a drugstore. I recall a lady who dropped off her film and promised to promptly return for it that day. I started developing the film and noticed that all the pictures were of a sleeping infant, but something was different about the baby. I was engrossed in the pictures as they came out of the printer, trying to put together what I was seeing. It looked like a wonderfully real doll until I suddenly realized that this was no doll or sleeping child. It was a dead baby.

The lady returned as she had said whereupon I tactfully commented about the photos. She apologized to me and stated that she usually explained the content of her film before having them developed but simply had failed to do so this day. These photos were part of her job: She was head of Pregnancy Loss Services in the maternity ward of one of the major hospitals. When children were born dead or had died in birth, her group went into action with different services the parents might desire to ease their grief. These ranged from photos like these to private funerals and regional commemorative walks.

Although my questions about the photos were satisfied, the pictures had a negative effect on me. They got on my nerves and haunted me for an entire week. I’d have flashes of the dead child while driving down the road or lose my appetite—such were the things that happened to me. Thereafter and almost weekly, the lady brought in film and the photos became more disturbing: babies in all stages of fetal development, some mutant-looking and badly discolored.

Even more shocking were the photos of smiling parents and family cuddled with their child—dressed if possible—and complete with balloons and other party stuffs, as though the child celebrated its birthday. The moments captured in those photos were terribly sad to view, but they were also powerfully consoling to the parents who were able to see a child’s tiny fingers or dark hair or resemblance to a sibling. It was literally a lifetime bundled in a single moment.

The Spiritually Dead

I realize that the story I’ve just related might be bizarre or difficult to read, but I use it as a prompt to discuss a spiritual point. Every person on earth spiritually enters this life as that unfortunate child—dead. There is no worthy goodness, no ability to love God, no self-motivated effort to reach him or ponder thoughts about him, even no chance of assessing our own depravity. We lie helplessly dead. In fact, this is one of Christianity’s classic teachings, the total depravity of humans as a result of original sin, another classic teaching. Every capacity of the human creature is impacted by the taint and destructiveness of sin.

The urgency of evangelism lies in what is at stake, the eternal soul: the soul that will either forever enjoy the presence of God or experience the torment of his separation. Thus, to do evangelism we must have a clear estimation about whom we’re targeting, which should look something like this: A spiritually dead person whose knowledge about church, past activities there, beliefs about Jesus, and so forth have heretofore meant nothing to the salvation of his or her soul (with respect to the Spirit’s unseen work.) Moreover, nothing will mean anything in that regard until that one acknowledges their deep sinfulness and rebellion against God. We were made for God and God’s love, but we, as Jeremiah has beautifully stated it, “…have turned [our] backs toward [the Lord] and not [our] faces” (2:27).

So it becomes our responsibility to explain that coming to Christ marks a renaissance, a quickening to life, a spiritual transformation that purposes to dominate everything about a person. It is more than getting one’s life together or “turning over a new leaf,” for one cannot ascertain God except the Holy Spirit gives light whereby to see. When this light does come, the first thing one will see is the disease of sin that destroys; the next thing will be the remedy, Jesus the Savior.

Why Being Good Isn’t Enough

Until we present a full call to repentance we accept the charge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that we offer only a “cheap grace” to the sinner. The grace we invite the sinner to accept is characterized as being cheap because it entails a convert merely holding to rules and regulations—going through the motions of being saved and doing church—rather than one’s radical self-denial and death to sinful ways to take up the cross of Christ. Such a grace only cumbersomely gets one through the door of faith, then, woefully, continues without effective discipleship.

Again, until we present an unswerving call to repentance, we will deceive men and women that their faith is genuine when they actually stand in need of full conversion. Bonhoeffer also makes a powerful point that a believer’s life and righteousness is possessed only in association with their fellowship with Christ. He says, “…righteousness can never become an objective criterion to be applied at will.” This is why merely good people don’t get to Heaven. Our best efforts and supreme moral good is worthless to make any difference for our salvation (Isa. 64:6)—and so is a righteousness given by God should we ever try to divorce it from Jesus. The righteousness which is from God ceases to be when we try to take credit for it. Jesus is everything in the ongoing conversion process, for even our confession is by the Holy Spirit.

Following His Lead

Now I’d like to transition from the condition of the lost and our preaching to some matters that determine our evangelistic effectiveness. First, we must recognize the Holy Spirit’s leadership in the conversion process. As much as I believe in outreach and missions, we must avoid an imperial attitude that makes us regard the unsaved as pawns to be captured or won instead of sinful souls in need God’s salvation. Too often that zeal is short-sighted (saving souls is easily done) or comes with wrong motives (numbers for our crusades and membership).

Real evangelism that brings souls to Jesus is not centered in how we can ‘work it’ but in the power of the Spirit to draw men and deliver them from death to life. We must preach simply and dependent on the Spirit’s help resisting the need for tactic or gimmick to lure people to the message. Now I’m not the biggest fan of witnessing campaigns…a much more conservative evangelical in this area than some. Still, I believe that an integrated faith in one’s life is important. I will never be ashamed of professing my faith in Jesus Christ before the world and sharing how his life makes every difference in mine. I think the Holy Spirit can sometimes use this better than our agendas to “win” the lost.

It’s important to pause here to say that prayer is our first labor. We must pray earnestly for the sinner. We must ask God to develop his heart for the lost within us. He longs to save and commune with those who are carried away in darkness. We must ask God to open their minds to the truth and to make their hearts receptive; to set us in their paths that we might share a word of encouragement with them whether it’s accepted or rejected. It should tear our hearts to learn that one has passed into eternity without Christ.

Just as following the Holy Spirit’s leadership is important, so is being sensitive to his unseen action among us. We can never be sure who the Spirit is dealing with, but we can be sure that he is moving in hearts around us because we labor in prayer. In this way he precedes us.

Note: It is not for us to assume that just because someone we’ve witnessed to is apparently receptive he or she is ready to confess Christ. The nicest people can be the most resistant to God. But could it not also be true that the one that fights and rejects us does so because he or she has been resisting the Spirit of Truth already whispering in the ear? Expect the Spirit before you ever open your mouth!

Aiding the Spirit

Now if giving way to the Spirit’s leadership is to help ourselves labor easier, then our procedures and support systems must be our way of helping the Spirit. Let me explain what I mean.

First, we need to see the entrance into the life of faith as a process. One of the most intimate and powerful baptism experiences that I’ve witnessed occurred when I lived in Japan. It involved a Japanese man with whom I shared budding friendship. His wife was a believer but he was not. He had long been attending Alpha meetings, a Bible-based discipleship support group. I came to the church in time to witness my friend’s baptism and announcement of faith in Jesus. It was a deeply moving experience.

My friend’s coming to faith didn’t produce my belief in faith as a process; rather it was the gift of God to me to witness what I had always felt was true about it. Jesus conveys this in his parable of the seed in Mark 4:26-29. Yes, I believe that salvation can be instant and genuine. People all the time come to church resistant to God until the Spirit suddenly opens their eyes and causes them to see Jesus.

But many of our churches don’t possess enough insight to see that the ‘one stop shop’ approach will not (and does not) reach everyone. I hate it when I hear preachers going through the formula—“Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God; that he died and rose from the dead…” Well sure they do and many people do, but it has done nothing to save them so far. (They’re dead, remember?)

And we can be sure that our formulaic approach and come-to-Jesus-right-now attitude will always fail should we maintain that the process 1) hinges on a mere decision for Christ (usually meaning all one has ever heard about Jesus) that can 2) be so easily made by the person having no discipleship precede conversion and certainly none following it. Lord, help us!

So we lend assistance to the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:9) when we take the time to answer the questions of those who genuinely inquire of the Christian life. People have questions and we should respect their right and need to have answers. Could we go further and say that the Holy Spirit himself places questions in people’s hearts? That he understands that the personalities of some need questions answered before they will unlock their hearts to him? Of course he does because he created us all and knows us perfectly. This is partly the understanding of 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 when Paul speaks of “casting down imaginations”—arguments and theories. This is what the Holy Spirit seeks to do: dismantle the structures Satan has erected in people’s minds that cause them to rebel against God (2 Cor. 4:3-4).

Our churches have to be sure that their methods are not blocking the work the Spirit may be establishing in people’s hearts. This even means we need more intimate prayer settings in our churches where workers in our services can explain the gospel and help seekers understand the life they’re choosing. It means that we need more cell groups and focused support groups, like Alpha, that embrace those with questions about God, the church, and spirituality.

(Let me stop and say this: Evangelism is an off-campus event. We are to go seek and save. No more seeker-sensitive services! The worship service is meant to edify the body of believers.)

A Rationally Viable Faith

It is a sobering thought that some people do not shadow the door of the church because it doesn’t meet them where they are. Some perspective here: Our world is a highly advanced place these days, and we (Americans) live in the most advanced nation on earth and in its history. The task for us Christians is to be able to clearly speak the unchanging and powerful gospel in the agora, the public square that might be better reckoned today as the marketplace of ideas.

Many out in this bazaar will not enter our churches without a higher level approach to the Christian system. So right here we must toss away the what-worked-in-times-past approach because it won’t fit the bill today or with all people (Mark 2:22). But although we preach an unchanging gospel, it doesn’t mean that the system of Christian faith is outmoded as many in our culture have written it off to be.

Two thousand years of church history has made the Christian faith more than ready to answer the complex questions of our advancing society. Most of our churches focus squarely on the devotional and primary aspects of the gospel message and forsake the church’s voice in the global and secular scheme of things. But the church has something to say about the broader society and matters like environmentalism, biomedical ethics, technology, and an array of topics and issues that have often been viewed as being irrelevant to our holy purposes.

In the same vein, sometimes we’re just not prepared. The Christian faith bears a very real rational aspect. It is a theological system as well as an ethical and philosophical system of belief that offers a full-spectrum perspective on the human experience. These kinds of intellectual discussions and forums must also be hosted by our churches because they too belong to the Church and have strongly existed in it since its spread throughout the Roman Empire. The church should always have a voice about current topics. We must appreciate our earliest heritage because there would simply be no church today without the rational prowess of the earliest defenders. We can only overlook intellectualism in our armory of spiritual weapons.

It is here that we discover the leading front of the battle between light and darkness. The way we think affects generations. After all, God loves these men and women, too, and needs the Albert Einsteins and Steve Jobs of the world. They are the Apostle Pauls and C.S. Lewises who could do more for the kingdom than we all combined! We fear these deeper subjects because we feel that they’re irrelevant or unnecessary in the saving of souls but we err. For goodness sake, we oppose anyone who would stand in the pulpit and preach theology! No, every person won’t need deep exposition to open their eyes to God but many do, especially today, and often those who could draw scores to God with their own salvation.

So just because these subjects are deeply rational and perhaps new to us doesn’t mean that we should avoid them. Think on it: Do we just let the intellectual masses of youth streaming out of our universities go headlong into hell? No! God needs their minds, their youth, and their fervor. Each of us can only benefit from a philosophy or apologetics text. Not only would we be made better Christians by it, but God sends us—guess where?—back into the marketplace; this time you’re a sharper tool (no pun intended!) The question is not if we can communicate Christ to the world but how willing might we be to do everything in our power to do so.

Party Time!

“Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. 5:14, KJV). When God awakens that baby from death, we should be the ready life support staff of spiritual physicians equipped with every tool in our power to make the work of the Spirit complete. The Spirit has done the hard work. He has breathed new life; now we work on the vitals.

With that said, evangelism is necessary and discipleship is not optional (Matt. 28:19). In fact, discipleship occurs on both ends of the evangelism process. Our manner should be direct, simple, enabling, and thoughtful. And when that one finally says Yes! to Jesus, with genuine conviction, we can truly call in the party because that child will live to never die again. Isn’t that great? We have awoken, once and for all, to life everlasting. Let us examine ourselves, for we are each God’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5:20).

Source: Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1968.

Also on this subject: How We Engage the Lost