Many Christians are confused on how good works relate to salvation and the Christian life. In Protestantism, we affirm loudly that we are justified by faith alone, but then don’t often know how to treat good works from that point. Well, I will simply say for now that they are necessary, and Kevin DeYoung has a great post on why.
I never want to be a heretic. Of course, if you ask some Catholics, Seventh Day Adventists, Orthodox Christians, and people from other groups, I already am one. Still, I profess Christ crucified, and I agree with the great ecumenical creeds of Christian history, so I dare to think that I am safe. Plus, I’m Baptist, and all Baptists go to Heaven (that’s in the Bible, right?).
Anyway, off of my babbling. Despite that I never want to be a heretic, nor do I particularly appreciate their presence in Christianity, I do find their existence useful. This is just another way that God works all things to the good of His people, even when false teachers arise to lead them astray. So, without further ado, I’ll briefly list the benefits of reading the writings of heretics:
Benefits of Reading Heretics
- You gain a better understanding of where not to go. When you become familiar with the general patterns and philosophies of a heretic, you find yourself with better discernment on all sorts of doctrinal issues. If you know what heretics sound like, then you will more easily be able to spot one and refrain from taking him with the same trust you would someone else. Key words and phrases will stand out as danger signs. You will also be able to recognize better if you yourself begin slipping down a slope that could lead to heresy (and at some point or another, most people will).
- You can learn why you believe what you do. When you read from someone who assures you that original sin or the Trinity is a false doctrine, then you will find the opportunity to research the issue and come out with a better understanding of why you should believe these truths. Investigating assaults on the truth often leads to knowing the truth more confidently.
- You can refine and expand your understanding of your own beliefs. I have a really heretical friend who contradicts almost everything I believe except the Trinity and the state of the human will. Nevertheless, I find conversing with him very eye-opening to me because when he explains his radically different perspective of some issue, he actually sheds light on the weaknesses or blind spots in my own understanding while still leaving me convinced of what I believe. The end result is that my views gain depth and perspective, while I remain entirely orthodox.
- You will gain the ability of helpful dialogue that can bring heretics back to the truth. If you read heretics and understand their thought processes, you can talk to them in such a way that they respect you and you don’t feel the need to verbally burn them at the stake. This opens doors to leading them back to the truth, which of course is a wonderful and excellent event.
All that said, you’re going to go read Love Wins now, right? Actually, if you’re going to read from a heretic, read someone better than Rob Bell. Choices of heretic aside, I should also point out the dangers of reading heretics, so as to keep you from making dire mistakes.
Dangers of Reading Heretics
- You can loose your theological footing. If you spend too much time listening to heretics, you may drown out the voices of Scriptural truth and orthodoxy. This can put you on a slippery slope to becoming one of those heretics that someone else reads one day. So whenever you read heresy, make sure you counter the effects with Scripture reading and strong Biblical teaching from trusted leaders.
- You can become a minimalist. A minimalist is someone who is unconcerned with all doctrine except, basically, “Jesus is Lord.” These people want every group of Christianity to get along equally without confrontation, and are likely to put doctrine down as divisive in favor of loving everyone. This can be a result of reading heretics if you grow to sympathize with them enough, or find their arguments equally valid to those for true doctrine. So remember to maintain a fight for what is right, and ground yourself with good reasons to believe what you do.
- You can get distracted. If you spend too much time reading heretics, you’ll run out of time to read Scripture, and Scripture is the source of our strength and the final authority in our Christian walk. So, just like with any reading material, set your copy of The Shack to the side every once in a while to read God-breathed truth instead.
You cannot focus only on God. That makes no sense and is really impossible. You also must not focus only on people. That is also a serious error.
What is the meaning of my blabbering? See, there are two extremes of error into which people are prone to fall. On one hand, there is the error of liberal theology and so-called “mainline Protestantism.” In this, everything is horizontal, that is, about other people. “Love your neighbor” becomes the only important commandment. Community, fellowship, and harmony become the ultimate values. This is wrong, for the greatest commandment in God’s law is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). The error of liberal theology and focusing exclusively horizontally is essentially reducing Christianity to a set of moral/social values and sentimental nonsense.
There is another error, though. This is the error of fundamentalism and even many conservative Evangelicals. In this, everything is vertical, that is, all about God. “Love your neighbor” becomes an afterthought that is done simply because you are obeying the command to love God, and you know that He wants you to love others. Personal piety, private devotions, and individual salvation become the most important parts of faith. This is also wrong, for God tells us that He identifies with humans through His Son, and how we orient ourselves toward others is taken by God personally (Matt. 25:31-46). The error of fundamentalism/pietism and focusing exclusively vertically is essentially reducing Christianity to a form of private therapy and often also sentimental nonsense.
The opposing errors Christians fall into as liberals and conservatives are being too exclusively horizontal or too exclusively vertical. See, there is a reason that Jesus said what He said about the greatest commandments. Let’s read the passage and then think further about it.
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The opposing errors Christians fall into as liberals and conservatives are being too exclusively horizontal or too exclusively vertical.
See, while loving God is given first place by Jesus (which is why many would assume the exclusively-vertical view is most Biblical), Jesus refuses to stop there. Remember to whom Jesus is speaking. These are Pharisees. If anyone ever embodied the exclusively-vertical error, they did. They fasted every week, prayed daily and grandiosely, memorized entire books of Scripture, offered expensive sacrifices, and made themselves the most serious students and teachers of theology. To follow God most perfectly, they even created a number of special traditions and regulations around the Law so that no one may break the Law by accident. They made their whole lives about God, and in doing so they neglected and even hurt other people. Thus, Jesus reminded them, is wrong. God commands love for Him first, but He also commands love for others, and this is the next most important commandment.
The problem with the Pharisees, of course, is that in focusing only on God, they were not actually focusing on God. How is this? Jesus Himself explains that God is deeply interested in people. God loves human beings. So to really obey God and focus on Him requires that we also focus on others. The Pharisees professed to know God, but they denied Him by their poor treatment of others. Their lives of dedication to God were really idolatrous. They offered God sacrifice relentlessly, but never showed mercy, which He truly desires. So the Pharisees fell into the trap of being completely vertical, and in being completely vertical, they failed to actually be vertical at all.
The problem with the Pharisees, of course, is that in focusing only on God, they were not actually focusing on God. To really obey God and focus on Him requires that we also focus on others.
On the other hand, there is an equally dangerous error which many embrace, and is more popular in American culture. This is the error of liberal theology, as I said before, and this error comes from ignoring the greatest commandment in preference to the second. Sometimes people are overly horizontal. These people downplay—by word, deed, or both—the importance of faith in Christ and devotion to God as secondary to treating others rightly. This often leads to a kind of social gospel, in which love, cooperation, and respect supposedly fulfill the point of Christianity. In a less radical form, issues such as social justice, kindness, sharing, and community become the only talking points of an otherwise Evangelical church, while issues such as evangelism, salvation, and devotion are only given lip service. This is certainly wrong, as well. The core of the Gospel is Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2, 15:3-5). As I mentioned before, the greatest commandment is to love God. So to make Christianity too horizontal is to break the first commandment.
This is also where the dangers of relevance come into play. When Christians try too hard to please and identify with people in our culture, there is the risk of going too far and becoming irreverent. At this point God, while still acknowledged and supposedly worshiped, takes a back seat in the way people do Christianity. How specifically can this happen? One way is the compromise of doctrinal convictions, either officially or unofficially. Some churches will, in seeking to reach people, change their official teachings. Others may just quit talking about uncomfortable topics. Liberal churches may write Hell out of their doctrinal statements, while more conservative churches that are too seeker-sensitive may just skip Hell in their sermons. Some churches may ordain homosexuals, while others might simply never mention that homosexuality is included in the great sin lists of Scripture. Either way, the core problem is pandering to people, focusing on the horizontal aspects of Christianity at the expense of the vertical. In this, the horizontal focus is self-defeating, for pure, undiluted communion with God in His awesomeness is what people need most. When you overemphasize loving people at the expense of loving God, you no longer love people properly.
Pure, undiluted communion with God in His awesomeness is what people need most. When you overemphasize loving people at the expense of loving God, you no longer love people properly.
In both cases, there is a constant: those who are too vertical are not actually vertical at all, and those who are too horizontal are not actually horizontal at all. For a God-focus requires a subordinate people-focus, and a people-focus requires a transcending God-focus. God loves people, so if you focus only on God and not on people you are failing to take Him seriously. People need God, so if you focus only on people and not on God you are failing to give them the best.
Now, most of us probably do not fall into the extremes of either error. However, we all have a tendency to lean towards one or the other, and sometimes our words or deeds do reflect the wrong ideas associated with whichever one we believe most. We must resist this. Our thinking must not be basically vertical, nor basically horizontal. In everything, we must be cross-shaped. For when you place a vertical line and a horizontal line on top of each other, you get a cross. I think that is fitting, for Christ crucified is the center of Christianity, and the Cross more than any other event in history shows the way that the vertical and the horizontal unite. At the Cross, God achieved the ultimate victory and magnified His glory, while humans received the ultimate grace and began their restoration to life. In Jesus Christ, the God-man, the interests of God met with the interests of people, climaxing at Calvary.
For this reason I say we ought to orient everything towards a united divine/human interest. Since I have been speaking so generally, though, let me give some specific examples. There is a debate among Evangelicals about church. Should our services be seeker-sensitive, fellowship-oriented, or completely vertical in glorifying God? If we are to have cross-shaped services, they ought to foster fellowship and mutual edification, make an evangelistic impact, and exalt Christ at every step. Not one point can be compromised. We must not say, as some do, that church is all about worshiping God, because the New Testament makes the necessity of edification, testimony, unity, and fellowship in church a huge point. We must not say either, as some do, that church is all about winning people to Christ, because the New Testament is clear that the gathering of believers in church is for our edification as Christ’s body and for God’s glory. We most certainly must also not say that church is all about our fellowship, for the New Testament writers challenge us to build each other up in the faith, exalt Christ, and preach truth.
When you place a vertical line and a horizontal line on top of each other, you get a cross. I think that is fitting, for Christ crucified is the center of Christianity, and the Cross more than any other event in history shows the way that the vertical and the horizontal unite.
Another place in which we must resist the temptation to break the cross is in the Lord’s Supper. When we come together for Communion, we often think of the event strictly in vertical terms, as something between “me and God.” The focus is all on Christ’s sacrifice and how I as an individual relate to that wonderful reality. Yet the New Testament reveals another aspect to Communion, namely a horizontal dimension. When we come together for the Lord’s Supper, we are one body. We are united at one table in fellowship, sharing in one sacrifice by our one Lord. There is a reason that we do not do Communion alone in our bedrooms, and this is because we are called in this ritual to celebrate what Christ has done for us, not just me, and enjoy our shared life in Him.
My point in all of this is actually quite simple: you cannot ever rightly follow God without seriously loving and fellowshipping with people, nor can you ever rightly love people without a devoted and faith-oriented eye to Christ. The vertical and the horizontal can never be separated. We never have to choose between them, nor should we. Instead, we unite the vertical and horizontal in a cross-shape, just as at the Cross God’s glory and human good united in the God-man. So fellowship in Christ, and worship God as part of one body. Basically, Jesus said it best. Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything hangs on these two commandments.
The Gospel Coalition Blog takes an insightful look at a popular book and its new movie.
Fact check: is tithing ever commanded for New Testament believers? The answer is “no.” Does that mean tithing is bad? No, it just means we are not morally obligated to give 10% of our income to church.
Now some of you are thinking, “Darn heretic doesn’t want people to give to God.” Others may be thinking, “Thank goodness, now I can keep that 10% for myself.” Well, if you are thinking either of those things (which you may very well not be), you’re wrong. See, tithing is easy. Almost anyone can survive on 90% of their normal income, and for most people that 10% will not impact much of anything. God, though, never goes the no-impact route. Jesus’ callings always change lives.
See, consider that whenever Jesus spoke on the Old Testament law, He didn’t simply set it aside. Instead, He exposed the true meaning and raised the bar even higher than the letter of the law, while at the same time preventing the legalistic abuse of the law. This is what He does with tithing. No longer are you (merely) required to give precisely 10% of your income to God, for that is far too simplistic, but you are commanded to give radically, generously, and self-sacrificially. The law said, “Give this percent.” Grace says, “Give until you can’t give anymore.”
Need proof? Let’s look at the New Testament on giving.
Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”
And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.
2 Corinthians 8:1-5
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
2 Corinthians 9:7
And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?
These texts, combined with other teachings such as not “looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:4), show us that Jesus intends for us to be radically generous. As believers, we ought to sacrifice our goods and money for three things (as I find in the texts):
- The functioning of the church
- The welfare of fellow believers
- Ministry to unbelievers
In most cases, we give 10% which mostly accomplishes the first purpose. Yet our call is much higher. Give, give, give, so that no fellow believers will be in need, and so that the needs of those outside can be met towards their salvation and the glory of the transforming Kingdom of God. It takes more than 10% to do that, so just give. Don’t worry about the numbers. Give all that you can. If you can’t live without every last 10%, give whatever you can afford, and if you really can’t afford to give anything, seek the aid of your church so that they can be blessed by ministering to you through giving. After all, “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Oh, and does all this mean you should never spend money on your own desires? Far from it! Money is like all other blessings in life: to be enjoyed gratefully by you, used in ministry for others, and dedicated to glorify and serve God. So glorify God!
You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.
C. S. Lewis
Or not. The above quote was supposedly said by C. S. Lewis, one of our favorite theologians of the modern age. The sentiment is echoed all over the place in Christianity. People complain about their bodies and long for the day that they will be free of them in Heaven. When people sin, they excuse or minimize their sin by saying that they didn’t mean to do something, but their passions or instincts got the best of them. People who struggle with body image are always reassured that the body doesn’t matter, but what’s inside counts. The promoted idea is clear: your body is not really you, just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.
This is not Biblical.
They say that your body is not really you, just a temporary shell. Your soul is the real you, and you may even be better off without a body.
While I could go on for a long time on why this is wrong, I’ll focus on two points: Gnosticism and resurrection. First off, such a strict division of body/soul does not come from the Bible, but from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. The Gnostics were a cult who came from the early church. They believed many problematic doctrines, but one of their core distinctives was their view of the physical and the spiritual, or the material and the immaterial. Matter and flesh, they believed, came from an inferior, perhaps evil, creator, whereas spirit and soul came from the true God. For this reason the body was seen as at best irrelevant and at worst an evil obstacle to salvation. The spirit, on the other hand, was considered the true and good self by which salvation could be attained through enlightenment. The difference between this Gnostic view and the “you are a soul and have a body” view is mostly only semantics.
The problems with this approach are numerous. For one, this kind of thinking is what led to the heresy that Jesus was not completely human, or only had the appearance of a body. Yet John calls them deceivers who “do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” or (as the NLT puts it) “deny that Jesus Christ came in a real body” (2 John 1:7). Jesus was God made flesh. Another problem is that this leads to one of two major moral errors in Gnosticism. On one hand, some felt that if the body was irrelevant to salvation, then we can do with it anything we please and not defile ourselves. Others, however, thought that if the body is so much less than spirit, then we should deprive and ignore our bodies, practicing strict asceticism at best or self-mutilation at worst. Yet these conclusions, as wrong as they are, follow rather naturally from such a deficient view of the body.
The difference between this Gnostic view and the “you are a soul and have a body” view is mostly only semantics.
The other main problem with the view that the body is secondary to the soul is resurrection. See, the resurrection is the hope of Christianity. Because Jesus died, but was raised to life everlasting, we also can be sure that we who trust in Him will be raised as well. This is not a mere spiritual restoration: it is the renewal and resurrection of our physical bodies. Paul explained well the importance of this. When there were some in the Corinthian church denying that we will be resurrected, Paul declared that if there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and if Christ was not raised we are doomed and lost in our sins. This shows that the resurrection of the body, which is supposedly just a container for the soul, is core to Christianity. And if the body’s resurrection is core to Christianity, then the body cannot be dismissed as “merely” anything. The beginning of the new creation in eternity will be the resurrection of the body, after which we live physically on a renewed creation forever.
There is one more issue I would like to raise about the importance of the body to human nature. When Jesus became a man, He took on a body, lived in a body, and died in a body. In fact, the death of Jesus’ physical body is the event which sealed our redemption. If the body is not essential to human nature, then Jesus could have incarnated without a body and done His mission in spirit. That Jesus took on flesh to become a human means that we need flesh to be human. In fact, Paul himself says as much when He writes of the hope of the resurrection body. He says that while we are in “this tent” (our mortal bodies suffering from the curse) we groan and are burdened, for we do not want to be “unclothed” (without a body) but be clothed with a “heavenly dwelling” (a resurrection body). For the problem with our bodies now is not that they are flesh, but that they are mortal and suffer the curse. Yet human nature is meant for a body, one which is immortal and free from sin. This is what is coming.
If the body is not essential to human nature, then Jesus could have incarnated without a body and done His mission in spirit.
Now I realize there are some who would object on the basis of the war between the spirit and the flesh. After all, Paul says this: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Doesn’t this mean that your physical body is corrupt and that your spirit/soul is pure? Not really. For the acts of the flesh are “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-21). While many of these are body with the body, they are all rooted in the heart, and some of these only take place within. Thus the flesh as Paul speaks of it against the Spirit is not the human body. What the flesh actually means is debatable, but it doesn’t mean human body by itself.
To conclude, let’s drop the Gnostic silliness. You are a body and a soul. Your body without your soul is dead, and your soul without your body is unclothed. God made us to be both. We cannot ignore the body, but must let our body and soul serve as instruments with which to glorify God. For we will be raised forever, to live bodily with Christ.
Oh, by the way, it is a myth that C. S. Lewis said the above quote. Thankfully.
- Chuck Norris once sneezed while on the Atlantic. The result was Hurrican Katrina.
- Chuck Norris buys his cereal at Home Depot.
- A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, Chuck Norris made his power available psychically. The Jedi called this the Force.
- Thor’s hammer was forged by Chuck Norris.
- Chuck Norris frisks airport security.
- Chuck Norris can strangle you with a cordless phone.
- The original plan for Hiroshima and Nagasaki was Chuck Norris. The President decided to go the humane route.
- Crop circles are Chuck Norris’ preschool art projects.
- The devil once sold his soul to Chuck Norris.
- Chuck Norris invented texting while he was driving.
- Chuck Norris can do a wheelie on a unicycle.
- Chuck Norris gives Life lemons and lemons make him lemonade.
- Chuck Norris can use Flash on an iPad.
- Chuck Norris once tapped Captain America’s shield to get a feel for it. It shattered into 365 billion pieces.
- Chuck Norris fools April.
- Chuck Norris can text on a landline.
- Chuck Norris beats rock, paper, and scissors.
- Chuck Norrs can win the 4-minute-mile in 3 minutes. Underwater.
- Chuck Norris once took the Cinnamon Challenge with a pound of cinnamon. The cinnamon coughed up blood and died.
- TNT was originally developed to cure Chuck Norris’ indigestion.
- Chuck Norris uses a lawnmower to shave.
- Chuck Norris puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. Then only difference: then he kills people.
- Santa asks Chuck Norris for presents. He gets death.
- The Coke secret ingredient is Chuck Norris’ approval.
- Chuck Norris can flush the Super Bowl.
- Chuck Norris once entered a maze, and the maze got lost.