Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Cliche- "I have a personal relationship with God" Part 3

In the past few posts we have been the looking at the popular Christian cliche which says, "I have a personal relationship with God." At the stake of looking like an unspiritual doubter, I have been testing this cliche to see whether it is biblical or not. The Goal of a Christian should not be to uphold tradition, but rather to be conformed to the Scriptures.

I will briefly list the conclusions of our study thus far.

1. The most commonly quoted verses from the Psalms used to support the idea that we are to have a personal relationship with God do not directly teach this. We looked at Psalm 42; 63; and 16. Two other popular verses used to support this idea that I did not address are Psalm 37 (especially vs. 4) and Psalm 34 (especially vs. 8). In all of these Psalms the Psalmists desires the presence of God for the sake of protection, longevity, provision, or physical prosperity. He does not desire the presence of God just cause, or for the sake of being near to the heart of God (whatever that means). As stated before, just because these verses do not directly teach that we are to pursue a dynamic relationship with God, they also do not teach against this. The Bible surely does teach that we are to have a personal relationship with God. But Biblical truth does not determine the meaning of a passage, context does. We then form our idea of Biblical truth from what context conveys.

2. Modern day Christians treat popular cliches in much the same way as the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) treats church tradition--they interpret the Scriptures in light of it.

3. Any doctrine, including this one, can be very dangerous when emphasized to the point of excluding other pertinent aspects of Christian theology.

Outside of Jesus and the Apostles Martin Luther is, in the opinion of many, the most influential and transitional figure in the history of Christianity. The more I learn about who Luther was, what he did, and what he taught, the more I begin to appreciate him. Luther was, to put it lightly, a genius.

As stated in an earlier post, Luther lived and taught when the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) was ruling the roost. Luther is the greatest example of what it looks like when someone is dedicated to Sola Scriptura.

He grew up under the influence of Roman Catholic (RC) teaching. The seminary he attended was RC as well. Luther did not have access to the Bible upon his arrival at seminary. He was indoctrinated by the false teachings of the RCC. Therefore, when Luther finally got access to the Bible he was full of RC presuppositions and biases. He was just as thoroughly effected by RC teaching than we are by today's popular Christian cliches. Yet when Luther sat down with the Bible he laid his theological convictions aside and tested them by the Scriptures. When he did this he was able to discern the false teachings that he had believed his whole life.

One of the problems prevalent in the RCC confronted by Luther was the way the leadership of the RCC abused their authoritative power. The RCC made it illegal in Germany for lay people to have a Bible. They did this out of fear that lay people might use the Bible to fight against the teachings of the church. They were also afraid of the church splitting into a thousand different pieces (which was one of the results of Luther's reform).

The RCC also taught that an individual Christian could not pray to God directly, rather they had to go through a priest. As Luther began testing these teachings in light of the Scriptures he began to see how unbiblical they were. He realized that the New Testament (NT) teaches that every believer, upon conversion, is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. He realized that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and men. He also became convinced that every believer should have access to the Word of God. He translated the Bible into German for the sake of the common man.

Everyone reading this post right now ought to take a few minutes and thank the Lord for Luther's influence. Without Luther it is likely that we would not have the Bible in our native tongue. Without the influence and boldness of Luther it is likely that we would still be praying to God through a bunch of dead Saints. Without the influence of Luther it is likely that God would still be seen as a far, overly distant, cold deity who delights in judgement.

If it were not for Luther it is likely that we would hear nothing about what it means to have a personal relationship with God. Luther discovered that the Bible had quite a bit to say about individuals and their ability to relate with God on their own apart from the structure of the church. This is not to say that Luther was against formalized church government structures, rather he was against the great chasm that existed between the clergy and the laity (and especially in regard to how they related with God).

Now I do not want to take away from the things that Luther said, but it is important to remember that Luther, almost all by himself, was fighting against the beliefs of the whole continent of Europe. Therefore, it was of necessity that he argue in extremes. This does not mean that you cannot trust what Luther said, but it does mean that you must understand the situation that Luther was confronting. Many of Luther's followers failed to realize this, and they took his ideas too far.

Luther was very much against those who took his teachings too far. One of the things Luther spent much time talking about was the appropriate way to respond to those with whom you disagree. Luther warned against the tendency to over react against false teaching. He used an illustration with a man and his horse. The man approaches his horse to go for a ride and in attempt to get on the horse he flips his leg up and over the horse, but doesn't quite kick hard enough. The man then takes a step back to set up his approach. He nears the horse again to attempt a remount, but this time, to avoid another failed attempt, kicks with all of his might. But the man kicks so hard that he falls off the other side of the horse.

The obvious purpose of the illustration was to show that over reacting against a false teaching actually produces just as much error as the original false teaching. Luther did not desire to make non-Catholic Christians. He desired to make Biblical Christians. It should not be the desire of a pastor to make his people Non-Charismatic Christians, or Non-Calvinistic Christians, or Non-Arminian Christians, or anything like this. A pastors desire should be to make his people Biblical Christians. God is not all that impressed if you can pick out the flaws in modern evangelistic methods, rather He is impressed when you are able to do evangelism Biblically.

It can be argued that modern Christian Culture's over emphasis on the "personal" dimension of a Christian's relationship with God is the result of taking Luther's teachings too far. Although the Protestant Reformation has effected us primarily for the good, it also has had it's negative effects, and this is one of them. This negative effect can be seen in Luther and Calvin. It can be seen in the Puritans and yes, even in John Wesley. It can be seen in Tozer, Lloyd-Jones, Ravenhill,and Pink. It can also be seen in Piper and nearly every other popular Christian author today. It is the tendency to individualize all of Scripture. It is the tendency to take verses referring to churches and groups and to apply them to individuals.

Let me give just one example from the NT.

Romans 12:1-2 "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may be able to prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect."

This verse is usually applied to individuals. Something similar to this is said, "In light of the Gospel. In light of what God has done for you (as an individual), you need to present your body as a living sacrifice. You need to expend yourself (time, talents, money, gifts, strength etc.) for the kingdom of God and this is the correct response to God for what He has done for you in Christ."

This sounds nice and all, but there is a much more accurate way of approaching this passage. It begins with an examination of the context. Paul wrote to the Romans because they were having troubles getting along. Racism was rampant in Rome. The Jews were looking down on the Gentiles because they were not descended from Abraham, and because they were uncircumcised etc. The Gentiles were ticked off at the Jews because of how they were oppressing them. The Gentiles also struggled with pride because it was becoming apparent that God had turned to them.

The tensions in Rome were great. The Jews and Gentiles were nearly at each other's throats. How on earth could anyone step in and calm things down? How could this situation be diffused? Well, the Apostle Paul decided to write the Romans a letter to diffuse the problem. He starts his letter telling them that they are all (both Jews and Gentiles) under sin. Paul went to great lengths in the first three chapters to prove that no one is exempt from this reality. Why did he go to such great lengths? Because he wanted to show the Jews that they have nothing over the Gentiles, because they were just as sinful as the Gentiles before God justified them. He also wanted to show the Gentiles that they were no better than the self righteous Jews because they were in the same boat before God justified them as well.

In Romans 3:19-5:21 Paul informed the Romans that they were all saved in the same way--By grace through faith. He did this to show the Jews that they did nothing to merit their own salvation. Their salvation was the work of God alone, therefore they have no reason to think that they are better than the Gentiles. "Salvation is a thing of grace therefore don't think that you are so hot Jews" (my little twist).

Then in Chapters 6-8 Paul sets forth to speak of the new life that the Jews and the Gentiles now share together in Christ.

Romans 8:15 says that they (Jews and Gentiles) "have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!'" Notice that they cry out "Abba! Father!" Is "Father" a Greek word? Of course not! How then do you think it would be read in the Greek? The Greek word for "Father" is Pater. What does Abba mean? Abba is the Arabic word for "Father." Therefore the Greek literally reads, "we cry out 'Abba! Pater!'" What an amazing reality! The Gentiles spoke Aramaic and so they called their father Abba. The Hebrews (Jews) spoke Greek and so they called their father Pater. What is Paul getting at here? He is saying that both Jews and Greeks are adopted. They are adopted into the same family, therefore they have the same Father. There is no difference between Jews and Gentiles in the sight of God other than the Language they use to address Him as "Father." The Jews and Gentiles address God as "Father" together, in unison, in their own unique languages. (The majority of commentators take "Abba, Father" to be personal reference to God, emphasizing a believers close relationship to God through the Spirit. But with the words, Abba and Pater, and with the Jew/Gentile theme throughout Romans, what I am saying seems to be much more faithful to context).

We then see many wonderful things in Romans 9-11. Paul writes Chapter 9 to show that being a descendant of Abraham does not help ones case before the judgement seat of Christ. How then are people saved if not on the basis of race? They are saved on the basis of God's predestining them unto salvation. Therefore, the Gentiles can be saved even though they are not descended from Abraham. Tis far better to be a child of the promise than to be a physical descendant of Abraham.

Then, before the Gentiles get too big headed, in Chapter 11, Paul humbles them by reminding them that they have been graciously grafted into the olive tree. He reminds them that the Jews were the natural branches which have been lopped off because of disobedience. Then he says, "Do not be conceited (O Gentiles), but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you either. Behold the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God's kindness, IF you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off." Paul then ends chapter 11 informing the Romans that God is not finished with the Jews. In fact, there is going to be a mass conversion of the Jews at the end of the age.

Finally we get to Romans 12:1, "Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God." In light of everything that Paul has said thus far he is going to direct them to some sort of action. Thus far he has stressed the fact that Jews and Gentiles have been in the same boat since the get-go. He has stressed 4 main things.

1. Jews and Gentiles alike were equally sinful.
2. Jews and Gentiles alike can take no ownership of their salvation.
3. Jews and Gentiles were raised up together and adopted into the same family.
4. Jews and Gentiles alike had better not think they are better than each other.

Pay attention here.

"Therefore, I urge you (this "you" is plural in Greek), brethren (this is plural in Greek), by the mercies of God, to present your bodies (this is plural in Greek) a living and holy sacrifice (this is singular in Greek), which is your spiritual service of worship."

How are those in the Roman Church to respond to what has been said up to this point? They are to present their BODIES (plural) as a living and holy sacrifice (Singular). Do you see the plural "bodies" and the singular "sacrifice." What then is the appropriate response to what has been said up to this point? UNITY! What is their "spiritual service of worship?" Unity in the body of Christ. What is one of the most crucial and God glorying aspects of worship? Unity! Forgiving one another from the heart!

Paul goes on and says, "And do not be conformed to the pattern of this world." What is the "pattern of this world?" Racism! The Jews hated the Gentiles and the Gentiles hated the Jews. This is life in 1st Century Rome. Paul is calling them away from this in light of the mercies of God.

Ok, so he wants to call them away from the "pattern of this world," but for what? So that they might "prove what the will of God is." Well, what is the "will of God" in this context? I can tell you one thing, it is not some super spiritual subjective leading of the Holy Spirit. How do I know this? Because he explains in the very next verse what the will of God is. Take a look at Romans 12:3-15:33. This is the will of God. What does this section of Romans talk about? Unity! Getting along with those in the body of Christ! Paul was calling them to unity. Romans 12:1-2 has very little to do with an individuals response to God. It has everything to do with corporate life. It has everything to do with getting along with those who are a part of the family of God, regardless of racial distinctions, social class distinctions, or any other type of distinction.

This, according to Romans, is the proper way to respond to what God has done for us in Christ. So many today totally miss this verse and what it means because they are not leaning on context. Granted, following context is not all that easy. I am not saying that all modern day pastors are lazy and stupid. Rather, I am saying that we, as Christians, ought to be putting all of our energy into context. We need to put all of our eggs in the basket of context. Context determines meaning.

There are many other passages that we mis-read because of our over emphasis on the "personal" dimension of a believer's relationship with God. I will not go through any more verses in this post. But I will say that the majority of NT texts used today to support this "personal" dimension of the Christian life are taken out of context. The majority of the NT is written to Churches confronting corporate problems (whether they be relational or doctrinal).

The great majority of the NT is not written to individuals to help them understand how to have a more dynamic personal relationship with God. The majority of the NT teaches believers to get their eyes off of themselves and on to others. The majority of the NT focuses on evangelism and living in community. Yes there is a personal dimension to the Christian life, and yes the NT does address this (John 17 for example), but this is not the emphasis in the NT.

The majority of Christians in today's culture will chaff at what I am saying here, but I am not saying this for the sake of being picky. I am saying these things because I desire to see Biblical Christianity. I am not, in any way, teaching that we should not seek a personal relationship with God, but I am saying that this certain aspect of Christianity should not be emphasized more than the Bible emphasizes it.

Now more than ever, Christianity needs to recapture the Bibles emphasis on corporate life. Christianity today is a mess. Churches are splitting left and right. It is not uncommon to have people in the same church hating one another! What sin! What awful grotesque rebellion! Bitterness! Greed! Covetousness! American Christianity could be characterized more by middle school type squabbles than by the grace and love of our Savior. HEY! But at least we are doing our devotionals! At least we have all of our Christian life verses memorized. Devotionals don't mean all that much when you live in friction with a fellow brother or sister in Christ. We need unity! Unity based on truth and grace!

Pastors are running to and fro throughout the land trying to find the remedy to the unity problems in their churches. Let me fill you in on something: The answers to your church unity problems are in the Bible. Read it in context and you will see. Drop your individualistic agenda and read the Bible in context.

In the next post, Lord willing, I will discuss what it means to have a personal relationship with God, according to the Scriptures read in context.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Cliche- "I have a personal relationship with God" Part 2

"I have a personal relationship with God." We have been considering this popular Christian cliche. In the last post we looked at the most popular texts in the OT used to support this idea. The conclusion we came to is that these verses do not teach that the Psalmist had a personal relationship with God per se, but they also do not teach against the idea that the Psalmist had a personal relationship with God. These popular verses teach that David had a love for God and a desire for His presence. The Psalmist did not desire the presence of God because of the warm fuzzies it brought to His soul. He did not desire the presence of God for the sake of having some sort of fulfilling devotional. He desired the presence of God because he was about to be slaughtered by his enemies. God was his only protection.

Therefore, "as the deer pants for the waters so my soul longeth after Thee O God," because as long as You are not near I have no protection.

I am not attempting to do away with the idea that we are to have a personal relationship with God, rather I am showing that context determines meaning. Cliches are only helpful when used correctly. When they are used as the unquestionable determiner of any given passage then they not only unhelpful, but even dangerous.

Someone at this point may say, "Aren't you being kind of picky. You yourself agree that this idea of having a personal relationship with God is a Biblical idea. I understand that many misinterpret certain verses because they lean too heavily on this concept, but at least they are not going away with some totally heretical teaching. How then can it be so bad?"

How can you know if something is Biblical or not unless if you test it in light of Scripture? It is impossible to test something in light of Scripture if you come to the Scripture using it as the determiner (i.e. the foundation of interpretation) of what Scripture means. When context is the foundation of interpretation then everything is put in a place where it may be tested. Remember, this is why Luther got so angry at the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Because they were interpreting Scripture in light of church tradition. Church tradition was the RCC's interpretational foundation. They were never able to see their error because they were treating church tradition in much the same way that American Christian's treat popular cliche's. They used church tradition as the unquestionable foundation of interpreting Scripture. Church tradition was never put into question because it became the basis used by the RCC to determine what Scripture meant. Many today are using cliche's in the same way. Cliches are never questioned or limited because they have become the basis used by contemporary Christians to question everything else, including Scripture and what it means.

Luther stood under the text and began testing Church Tradition by the Scriptures. When he did this he began to see how in need of testing Church tradition was. American Christianity needs to do the same thing in regard to her beloved cliches. They need to test them in light of Scripture and discard the ones that do not line up. Luther was not afraid to publicly reject the most beloved teachings of the Catholic Church if they could not be found in the Scriptures. We need to be ready to do the same. We need to be ready to reject even the most fundamental ideas of modern day Christian culture if they do not line up with the Scriptures.

How would you react if I told you that the Bible did not teach that every individual Christian has a relationship with God? What would be your response? Would you start quoting Scripture correctly interpreted to me, or would you just get frustrated and call me a heretic? This is what I am trying to expose here. I am trying to show you that you are (most likely) more protective of your popular cliches than you are of the Scriptures read in context.

Learn to be a doubter! "What? A doubter?" YES! A DOUBTER! Doubt the things that you have been taught your whole life until they are either affirmed or rejected by the Scriptures read in context. There is one thing you must not doubt though and that is Sola Scriptura itself. Do not doubt that God has spoken in His Holy Word. Lean on it, rely on it. Let it be what informs you of what is right and wrong.

What exactly then is at stake when you do not let context be the sole influencer of your interpretation?

1. That which guides your interpretation may be heretical. This, of course, will lead to a heretical interpretation. For example, the Jehovah's Witnesses (JW's) use their other inspired writings to guide their interpretation. These writings teach that Jesus is not God. Therefore, when they go to Col. 1:15-20, for example, which clearly teaches that Jesus is God, they twist it. JW's say that Col. 1:15-20 teaches that Jesus is only human. They get it completely wrong. Why? Because that which is informing their interpretation is completely wrong.

What is at stake if you are leaning on something other than context to determine meaning? You will not be able to detect the most heretical doctrines. It may be a matter of heaven or hell. No one who rejects the deity of Christ is going to Heaven. The Book of John makes this very clear.

At this point you may say, "I get the point. But, I am not a JW. I don't believe anything that far out. Popular Christian cliches are much more faithful to the Bible than the heretical teachings of the JW movement."

How do you know that you are not that "far out?" The only way to discern if the cliches you hold to are not heretical is if you test them in light of Scripture. And so long as your cliches are informing the way you interpret the Bible, you will never be able to test them in light of Scripture.

2. Heretical teaching is not the only negative consequence of not leaning upon context for meaning. Another result of letting cliches determine the meaning of a text is bondage. "Bondage?" Yes! Bondage!

Let me illustrate by using the cliche that says, "I have a personal relationship with God." This idea has spread through Christianity like wildfire. As stated before, I do believe the Bible teaches this. You may say, "Then what is your problem?" Just because something is Biblical does not mean that it cannot be used wrongly. For example, the JW's teach that Jesus is human. Is this Biblical? Of course it is. But they abuse this teaching by emphasizing to the exclusion of the deity of Christ. They forsake the parts of Scripture that talk about the deity of Christ for the sake of those passages which talk about the humanity of Christ.

Whenever you emphasize some aspect or teaching of scripture to the exclusion of other teachings of Scripture you will be effected negatively. I personally, have been affected in a negative way by Christianity's over emphasis on having a personal relationship with God. About three years ago I got all fed up with myself. I got sick of telling everyone that Jesus is my best friend when it wasn't really true. I felt compelled to speak like this though because it was the way we gauged our spirituality.

I remember arguing with myself about my personal relationship with God. My arguments would go like such:

"Ok, God is real. God is immanent. God is near."

"But where is He? I can't see Him. I surely can talk to Him, but I never hear His voice. How can I call Him my best friend when it is such a one sided relationship. I do all the talking. How can I call someone who is invisible my best friend? How can I call someone who is invisible and mute my best friend?"

"Ok, I am going to go pray now. Prayer is exciting, because this is where God and I hang out. Prayer is to be the place where it is me, God, and no one else. This is going to be great."

"Prayer is like big fat stinky fart to me right now. I really don't want to be here. How can I call God my best friend when I would rather be playing in traffic than praying? There is something wrong with me. There has got to be something wrong with me. All the other Christians I know who love God talk about their exciting prayer times and mine are as dull as a broken glow worm. What is wrong with me? Is there some sin in my life that I do not know about? I know that I have spent the past week going through my life trying to figure this out, but there has to be something blocking my relationship with God. Am I even a Christian? If I call God my friend, yea, my best friend, how is it that I hate praying? I really would rather hang out with a bum right now than be here in prayer. Bums are much more interesting than prayer. Sure they smell a little funny, but at least they talk back. Is God really present with me while I pray? I don't feel His presence at all. All of the godly people at church say that they feel God's presence when they pray. When I pray sometimes I get excited or emotional. Sometimes I am more aware of spiritual things, but I have never felt His presence before. Heck, what does it even mean to feel the Presence of God. What is wrong with me."

Does this sound all too familiar to anyone out there? I hate to break it to you, but exciting devotionals are not the evidence of great spirituality. Feeling like you are best friends with God is also not the greatest evidence of spirituality. What does it mean to have a personal relationship with God?

I went through a long bout with this. I was in bondage to this personal relationship with God idea. I really thought I was doing something wrong. I questioned my salvation. I was so focused on having exciting devotionals that I forgot about all the other important things in Scripture. You know, things like evangelism, serving others, loving my enemies etc.

What is more important according to the Bible, having a dynamic and exciting prayer life or prayerfully evangelizing? Which of the two is the better gauge of Spirituality: Fulfilling devotionals or prayerfully serving the Saints? Jesus did not have great things to say about the over introspective Pharisees. Surely Jesus did often times go off by His lonesome. What were his prayers like? Were they lively? Did He feel God's presence when He went off to pray? When Jesus was in the wilderness for such a long period of time, did He have a great time? When Jesus was in the wilderness did He get distracted by the cluster of ants by the big rock to His left or was He so spiritual that he experienced nothing but a closeness to God and big fat warm fuzzy in His heart of hearts?

Agreed, Jesus is a unique figure. Jesus was closer to God than any other human, because he descended from the very court room of God. But Jesus was also human. God was still invisible to Him.

What about Paul? Were his prayers always full of reality and passion? Were he and God best buddies? Did he feel the presence of God moving in his prayers? Was God his best friend? Are you more spiritual than Paul? Are you more spiritual than me because of your dynamic prayer life?

Guess what? The Scriptures don't speak to these things. Most Christians live a lie. They say that Jesus is their best friend, but in their heart they know that He is not. They try and try and try to make him to be so, but they know that it cannot be done. How can someone invisible and silent be a best friend.

Or maybe He is their best friend, but in a different way.

Is God my best friend? I really don't know if I can answer that. What do you mean by best friend? Yes God is my friend. I love God. I desire to know God more and more. If you are going to call God your best friend then you need to be able to define what this means by the Bible. I am not saying that you are wrong if you say that Jesus is your best friend. But an invisible/silent individual cannot be a best friend in the same sense that a visible/audible individual can.

One of the greatest problems with Christians today is that we desire to be all too spiritual. We say all these spiritual things without knowing what they really mean. This is not spirituality, it is pride. We want to talk the talk in front of the holy ones. Do you think that you are more spiritual than I because I am questioning whether or not Jesus can be a best friend? If so, then where do you get your spirituality-o-meter? From the Bible? Or from Popular Christianity?

We will continue our discussion about what it means to have a personal relationship with God in the next post. Don't get all depressed that I ruined your idea of Christianity. In the next post I will explain what I mean when I say "I have a personal relationship with God." While you may think that I stealing from you your most prized possession just wait. In the next post you will see how much more wild your relationship with God can be when you base it on Scripture.

I hope this post has been liberating for some people. When I got honest with myself about what God being my best friend, it liberated me. It meant that I didn't have to play the game of spirituality anymore. This didn't mean that I stopped praying. But it did mean that I stopped trying to make my prayers something they were never going to be.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Putting the "Hell" Back into Christmas

We have heard it time and time again–"Lets put the Christ back in Christmas." But what does this mean? How do you put the Christ back in Christmas? What does this look like? How does this change the way we celebrate? How does this change the way we open presents? For many people, putting Christ back into Christmas merely means mentioning His name and reading about His birth in the first few chapters of the Gospel of Matthew before opening presents.

Let me tell you what I mean when I say, "I am putting the Christ back in Christmas." The whole purpose of the Christmas holiday is not merely to remember Christ, rather it is to celebrate who Christ is and what Christ has done. What has Christ done that is so worthy of celebration? Most would say, "Well, He became a man! At Christmas we celebrate His birth!"

I have tried this approach for many years and have nearly exhausted myself trying to get excited about the birth of Christ. Don’t get me wrong, the birth of Christ is very exciting. But throughout the years I have always known that there is something more to Christmas than the Birth of Jesus.

About two years ago I got honest with myself (something that people need to do more often). I expressed my thoughts to myself about Christmas and how I really just didn’t have much excitement left when it came to thinking about the birth of Christ. So I said to myself, "OK, Jesus is born! What else is there."

Then I began to ask myself questions (something else that most people need to do more often). I just knew that there had to be something more. So I asked myself one simple question, "What makes the birth of Christ so exciting?"

Did Jesus come and live among us because he just wanted to hang out? Why did God become a man? Did he want to be shorter than the trees? Or was it because he wanted to know what it was like to be a human? Was it some kind of Divine experiment? Of course not!

Why then did God become a man? Because man was in need of salvation–a salvation that could only be accomplished by God. The reason God became a man was to die in the place of man.

I hate to ruin the Christmas holiday by bring up a naughty word, but I must. HELL!

"What? Are you morbid or something? The thought of Hell is what brought life back to Christmas for you?"


If you leave Hell out of Christmas, then you have left Christ out of Christmas. Without Hell there would be no Christmas. Christ became a man to save us from Hell. Christmas is a time of celebration. It is a time to celebrate the victory we have in Jesus.

Check out what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews has to say about Christ becoming a man:

"Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people" (Hebrews 2:14-17).

Christmas is my way of celebrating the fact that Christ became a man in order to take hell in my place.

Christmas is also a time of mourning. We mourn for those who have not come to know Christ and His saving grace. In America we want everything to be nice and happy. We want Christmas to be happy and fun, but if we want to put the Christ back in Christmas there must be a sad element to Christmas. We must not only think of a cute little baby in a manger, we must also think of a bloody savior on a cross. Christmas is one of the biggest reminders, for those who have placed their faith in Christ, that men are in need of a savior. Most people in the world have not repented of their sins and turned to the Lord Jesus Christ. Most people in this world are going to Hell. Christmas is a time to celebrate what Christ has done, but it is also to be a sobering reminder that putting the Christ back in Christmas is not a mere desire. It is a grave necessity.

It is not wrong to have fun on Christmas, but it is wrong, for the sake of fun and presents, to take Christ out of Christmas. Christ was not born for nothing. Christ was born to die–to die for sinners. Christ did not die for nothing–He died to save men from Hell.

Ignorance is bliss, but intentional ignorance for the sake of uninterrupted fun and presents is morbid.

Rejoice this Christmas that Christ is mighty to save. Mourn over those who have not yet experienced His saving power.

If you are not a believer, if you have not repented of your sins and thrown yourself on Christ as your only hope of heaven, let the thought of Christ being born convince you that you are on your way to Hell. Trust Him! Trust Him! God became a man to save you from an eternal Hell. He is mighty to save! Put the Christ back into Christmas!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christian Cliche #1- "Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ"

We will be looking at modern Christian Cliche’s in these next few posts. Cliche’s are helpful, but they are, by nature, simplistic. Therefore they can be very dangerous, because contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is not simplistic. I am not against using cliche’s, but I am against using them incorrectly. I am also against cliche’s that are wrong.

In short, a cliche is used wrongly when it treated as the “final word” on any given subject. The purpose of a cliche is to communicate one aspect of a thing. Cliche’s are not to be used as a foundation for theology. Christian theology is far too complex to be communicated primarily by way of cliche’s. Most modern Christian writers have done just this (used cliche’s as the foundation of their theology). The result is an overly simplistic Gospel that is more dangerous than helpful. Most Christians have a greater understanding of Cliche’s than they do of the Bible. This is a problem..

Let’s take a look at some popular Christian cliches. I will first describe how the cliche is generally used, then I look at it in light of scripture, and then I will makes some concluding thoughts about it.

Cliche 1: “I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Christians usually use this cliche when they need to communicate that their religion is no mere matter of intellect. This cliche helps them capture the idea that Jesus is alive and well in their hearts, and that their relationship with Him does not exist in some cold set of rules, but it exists, rather, in a dynamic relationship of love and admiration. Many today use this cliche when they want to communicate that Jesus, to them is a best friend. They “hang out” with Jesus. Jesus is their “homeboy.” I have a personal relationship with Jesus.

At the outset I want to say that I am not against using this cliche, but I do think that this cliche is, as are all the rest, abused.

Nearly every Christian you come into contact with uses this phrase. I am sure that if you are reading this and are Christian, you have said this yourself. But have you ever asked yourself what this cliche means? What does the Bible say about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

First of all, it is important to know that the phrase “personal relationship with God” is not found in the Bible. Many will say to me at this point, “Jimmy, why do you feel the need to attack everything I believe? Why would you call into question such a foundational element of Christianity?” My answer to you goes as such, “Why do you consider this idea of having a personal relationship with God to be a foundational element of Christianity? Is it because the Bible makes it a foundational element, or because modern Christian Culture makes it a foundational element? By the way, quote for me what the Bible says about having a personal relationship with Christ.” We need to put ourselves in a position where our cliches are formed by the Word of God. The cliche’s we use are not infallible. The only way to test if they are correct or not is if they can be found in scripture. Popularity is not a good test when discerning if something is foundational to Christianity or not. Even if they are correct, we need to make sure that we are using them correctly.

I am not necessarily against this idea of having a personal relationship with God, if it is understood correctly–according to the Bible. The main point of bringing this up is to show you how much you throw your preconceived ideas upon the Bible. Most people go to the Bible assuming that the Bible is teeming with verses about Christian’s having a personal relationship with God.

According to the Bible, what does it mean to have a personal relationship with God? The first place we will look is the Psalms. The Psalms are the most personal, intimate scriptures in all of the Bible. In the Psalms we see men who expressed their hopes, dreams, fears, and desires. We will take a look at the Psalms most often associated with this personal relationship idea.

Psalm 42:1-2 “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God. My Soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God.”

The first question we need to ask of this verse is, “Why is the Psalmist so desperate for God?” To answer this questions we dare not look to the slogan’s of Christian culture, rather we must look to context. After examining the context of this verse it becomes very apparent that the Psalmist desires the Lord because he is in need of deliverance from his enemies.

See it for yourself. The rest of the Psalm sets it forth clearly. (Anything italicized is for emphasis. Anything in the parenthesis are my words.)

Psalm 42:3-11 “My tears have been my food day and night, While they (my enemies) say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence. O my God, my soul is in despair within me; therefore I remember You from the land of the Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the sound of your waterfalls; All your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me. The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; And His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life. I will say to God my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’ Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’ As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me, While they say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’(He longs for God to vindicate him before his enemies. He also longs for God to vindicate Himself.). Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.”

This verse has very little to do with a personal relationship with God. It has everything to do with David’s desire to be saved from his enemies, and vindicated in the eyes of his enemies. Context, not cliches, determines meaning.

Let’s look at another verse commonly used to support this idea that we are to have a personal relationship with God.

Psalm 63:1-5- “O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water. Thus I have seen You in the sanctuary, to see Your power and Your glory. Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips will praise You. So I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness, And my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.”

What a wonderful expression of desire for God, and thanksgiving for His goodness. Why such emotion in this Psalm? Lets take a look at the context.

Psalm 63:6-11- “When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches, For You have been my help, And in the shadow of Your wings (this is a metaphor for protection from enemies) I will sing for joy. My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me (“right hand” is a metaphor for provision and protection). But those who seek my life to destroy it, will go into the depths of the earth. They (my enemies) will be delivered over to the power of the sword; they (my enemies) will be a prey for foxes. But (huge contrast here) the king will rejoice in God; Everyone who swears by Him will glory, for the mouths of those who speak lies will be stopped.”

Once again we see that Psalmist longs for God, which, in this context, means that He (God) be present to protect him from his enemies. I do not want to in anyway communicate that we love God only because He does a lot of cool things for us. We are not brats of God, but rather children of God. In the midst of trouble the child wants his Daddy near. When he realizes that his Daddy is not near he begins to sob. The more afraid he becomes the louder he yells “Daddy! DADDY! DAADDY!” So it is with us. The child is not selfish when he cries Daddy. When the Father hears the voice of his child he runs to him, scoops him up, and begins to assure him that everything is ok. The child then tells his father that he is so glad that he is near. His fears are relieved. WHAT A BRAT! WHAT A SELF CENTERED BRAT! No, what a scared and helpless child who is thankful for his loving father. So it is with the Psalmist’s in these two Psalms.

I do not deny that these verses do teach something of a personal relationship with God. There is definite intimacy shared between God and the Psalmist. This circumstance, I am sure, gave David a greater love for God. But the Psalmist’s reliance upon God is what is emphasized here. This Psalm does not communicate some sort desire for God to be present just cause. He isn’t desiring God to come down so they can play some kind of spiritual nintendo or something. The Psalmist desires and longs for the presence of God–the safe/protective presence of God.

Let’s look at one more.

Psalm 16:11- “In your presence is fullness of joy; In your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.”

What a wonderful line. Remember though that context determines meaning. What does this verse, at this point, ripped out of context, mean? Well, lets put in it’s context.

Psalm 16:1- Preserve me, O God (He is asking God to keep him alive), for I take refuge in You (in other words, Presever me because I trust in you for my life). I said to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord;’ ‘I have no good besides You.’ As for the saints who are in the earth, They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those who have bartered for another god will be multiplied; I shall not pour out their drink offerings of blood, Nor will I take their names upon my lips. The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup (In other words: You are all I have. Without you I have nothing. Not even life); You support my lot (in other words: everything that I have is sustained by You). The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me. I will bless the Lord who has counseled me; Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night. I have set the Lord continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken (in other words: I will not be defeated or killed or taken advantage of because I lean upon the strength of the Lord). Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will dwell securely. For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol (Sheol means death- in other words: you will not let me die); Nor will you allow Your Holy One to ungergo decay (in other words: you will not let me die, you will sustain my life). You will make known to me the path of life (i.e. you will get me out of this death trap); In your presence is fullness of joy; In your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.”

The last line is a summary of everything David had said up to that point. David was going on and on about how God is the sustainer and preserver of his life. Without the presence of God, David would know nothing but death. But because God was with him, he had assurance of safety and longevity. Context determines meaning. What is “fullness of joy.” The joy of being protected by God. The joy of living a long and safe life. What does he mean when he says that at his “right hand” there are “Pleasures forevermore.” First of all, it is important to remember that the “right hand” of God is where all of his blessings come from. This Psalm is emphaisizing the blessing of provision and protection. Why would the last verse of this psalm suddenly change direction. Context determines meaning.

I do not want minimize the fact that there are many more wonderful things that come from the right hand of God, but this particular Psalm is only speaking of 2 or 3 of them.

Why am I doing this? Am I just being picky? Of course not. The Bible is to be the thing that forms your ideas and beliefs. When you approach these three Psalms and interpret them in light of the slogans of modern day Chrsitianity then you will miss the great portion of what it is trying to say. Psalm 42 should be a pastors key verse for someone who is in the throws of battle (whatever kind of battle that may be), but so long as we let it cater to our present “personal relationship” agenda, it never will. I am not saying that Christian’s do not have a personal relationship with God. I am saying that context, not popular teaching, determines meaning.

If you are seeking to be molded by the scriptures, what good does it do you to take your own preconcieved idea(s) and lay it on the text. You will merely come out the other side just believing what you already believed, with just a bit more emphasis. But if you want to be formed by the Bible, you must let the Bible do the talking. Here is a good rule for reading the Bible: “SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP!” Keep your thoughts to yourself. Silence yourself. If you have to, wear tape over your mouth when you sit down to remind you that you are the learner. Let the Bible speak. Be, in a sense, passive when you read the Bible. Let it tell you what to believe. Let it tear you to pieces. Let it break to pieces those things that you presently believe, so that it might build you back up twice as strong.

In the next post I will say more about this popular cliche. What does it mean to have a personal relationship with God? Don’t tell the Bible what it means, and then force it (the Bible) through your hoops. The Bible is not to conform to your ideas, rather you are to conform to the Bibles ideas. The last thing we need is the Bible to look like a bunch of sinners. No, we need a bunch of sinners to look like Jesus–Jesus as He is revealed in Scripture.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Postmodernism A Movement of God?

No one is above influence. Every one's beliefs, thinking patterns, actions, values, fears, dreams etc. are shaped by something. No one believes something "just because." No one can escape the reality of influence. Even those today who so boldly call themselves "free thinkers" are not above influence. Isn't it a funny thing that the majority of Americans are free thinkers. Free thinking is the thing to do in America. Free thinkers are the product of our popular postmodern society. You may say, "I like to think out of the box." To this I say, "Oh how original."

What I am teaching here is mild postmodernism. That's right, postmodernism does have it's values. Postmodernism really is an over reaction against the all too confident modernism. Extreme Modernism basically taught that anything could be attained by reason alone. Centuries went by and discovery after discovery was being made, which fueled an overly optimistic view of the abilities of the human mind. Those who embraced modernity to it's fullest extent ended up rejecting the Christian Faith, because, in their system, there was no room for the supernatural. The Modern mind could come to know everything fully, including God Himself. A few philosophers came along in the 18th and 19th Centuries and began to play with the basic thesis of Modernism. They began to ask questions like, "Where do morals come from," or "What drives a person to risk his life for the sake of someone he does not know?" The result of their questioning was the humbling reality of the feebleness of the human mind. No, the human mind does not have the ability to understand everything exhaustively.

What a wonderful God exalting discovery. God has been trying to convince humanity since the fall that they are helpless without Him. Modernity had placed man on an equal playing field with God. Modernity, of course, did have it's strengths. Modernism taught that you can come to absolute truth. This is a definite strength of modernity, especially since the Bible is full of absolute truth. Also, modern medicine and transportation, for example, would not be what they are today without the ambition of the optimism created by Modernism.

In the same way that Modernism had it's strengths and weaknesses, Postmodernism also has it's strengths and weaknesses. Postmodernism has done Christianity a great service by proving the limit of the human mind, but it would be a grave mistake to consider Postmodernism to be a Christian movement. Postmodernism, at it's most fundamental level, teaches that everyone is shaped by their context. The idea of Post (after) modernism (Modernity) is that we all see reality through a lens which has been shaped and molded by our surroundings. Postmodernism embraces the fact that everyone is unique. Everyone sees things differently, values things differently, emphasizes things differently, and defines things differently. Each individual sees any certain thing from a unique vantage point, namely from the vantage point that has been shaped by his/her experiences.

Postmodernism has the same sort of fault that Modernism had. Modernism embraced the fact that the human mind is capable of coming to absolute truth, which is good and true. The problem with Modernism is that they took this thought too far and ended up deifying the mind. Postmodernism embraces the fact that the human mind is limited because of experiential influences, which is good and true. The problem with postmodernism is that they take this too far and end up saying that we are so influenced by our experiences that we are incapable of coming to absolute truth.

Christianity is having a hay day dealing with all of the problems produced by postmodern thought. This has caused many Christians to reject postmodern thought altogether, which is a mistake. Modernism produced many problems for Christianity, yet most Christians would celebrate it's strengths. Christianity needs to do with the same with Postmodernism. I am in no way suggesting that we receive the movement as a whole, but we must embrace those ideas that are right and true.

Everything said so far in all of my posts has been the result of postmodern thought. I have been trying to expose those things that have influenced the way you read the Bible. We have been influenced by many things whether it be secular culture, christian culture, the beliefs and teachings of our parents, the beliefs and teachings of our younger or older brothers and sisters, the beliefs and teachings of our peers, the beliefs and teachings of our teachers, media, country, pastors, songs, movies etc. All of these influences have, to some degree, distorted our ability to decode (interpret) with precision. I agree with this. Postmodernism is right up to this point. But, contrary to the popular postmodern opinion, correct interpretation is not impossible. Difficult? Yes! But not impossible. It can be done. Yea! It must be done if we are going to be passionate about the call of Sola Scriptura.

Those who want to be faithful to the Bible must understand both sides of this reality. First of all, we must understand that absolute truth is attainable. And second, we must expose our presuppositions and those things that make our reasoning unique so that we might be able to interpret without bias. Correct interpretation does not happen naturally. Correct interpretation involves a lot of hard work. It involves letting go of one's presuppositions for the sake of building better ones--presuppositions crafted by the Bible alone.

No one can escape the reality of influence, but we can have some say in what we are influenced by. We must learn how to critique ourselves. We must learn how to stand over ourselves so that we might be able to see past our own preconceived ideas. We must learn how to discern those things that dictate how we interpret so that we might be able to get rid of them. We need to get to a place where we are not controlled by our presuppositions. As long as you do not know those things that dictate your interpretation, you will be controlled by them.

The more we work at exposing our presuppositions, the more we can get rid of them. The more we get rid of them, the more we will be able to interpret the Bible without bias. The more we are able to interpret the Bible without bias, the more we are influenced by the Bible. You see, we do have some control over what we are influenced by. Those who refuse to embrace this Postmodern thought will never be able to read the Bible correctly. They will always ignorantly throw their preconceived ideas on the text.

What is it that controls your thinking? What shapes you? Is it secular culture? Is it a backwards Christian culture? Is it what you have been taught your whole life? Is it your experiences? Is it the Bible? Let me be ever so picky. Is it the Bible as seen and interpreted through your own unique grid? If so then your ideas are just as determinative than the Bible's. Are your ideas just as good as the Bibles? Or do your ideas need to be critiqued by the Bible's ideas?

"Well," you say, "I got my ideas from church."

"Well," I say back to you, "What makes you think that your church's ideas are just as good as the Bible's ideas?"

We need to get to a place where we say, "My ideas are good and valid because they have been formed by the Bible read in context."

The Bible read in context is the only firm foundation--the Bible loosed from the faulty foundations of secular and humanistic presuppositions.

My goal as a Christian leader is to have context driven interpretation be that which determines meaning. The one presupposition that ought to drive our interpretation is the one that says "context determines meaning." Embrace this presupposition. Let it guide you as you read the Bible. Let nothing stand in the way of it.

Seek to be rid of your presuppositions so that you might be controlled by better ones--ones that are not formed by a secular culture, but rather those that are formed by the word of God as read in context. Seek to be influenced by the Bible. Form biblical context-driven, presuppositions.

Two books have been incredibly influential for me on this issue 1. The Gagging of God; and 2. The Francis Shaeffer Trilogy. In the next few posts I will be discussing the danger of popular Christian cliches and how if used wrongly they can render a person incapable of being shaped solely by the Word of God.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Final's Break

I am officially banned (by my wife) from all blogging until Dec. 20, 2006. From now until Dec. 20th I have my Intermediate Greek and Elementary Hebrew Finals, about 75 theology essays to grade, church internship responsibilities, and a 24 hour drive to NH, along with all of the hassles of moving.

During this time I ask those who are crazy enough to read this blog to seek out books on hermeneutics (the study of interpretation). Spend time thinking about the importance of the Bible. Try to discover all of the things that hinder your ability to be shaped solely by the Word of God. Consider what it is that shapes you. Consider what it is that shapes the way you read the Bible.

God Bless