The Promise in the Tomb

In Genesis 23, Abraham’s wife Sarah dies. Probably the most important aspect of this event to biblical history is that it leads to Abraham’s first legal claim to the promised land. In seeking a tomb for Sarah, Abraham spoke to the local Hittites and asked to buy some land. Both these first Hittites and Ephron, with whom Abraham ends up doing business, try to get Abraham to take a tomb, apparently at no charge. This Abraham refuses, and for good reason. If he received the land for free, his claim on it might later be questionable. By burying Sarah on Hittite soil, Abraham would be taking a firstfruit, a partial realization of the inheritance God had promised him. But this would be an unstable claim if no official transaction took place. Thus Abaraham insisted on paying for the land, and in the end he paid a high price.

So it came to pass that Abraham’s first property in Canaan was a plot with a tomb. God began to fulfill His covenant with Abraham by means of a tomb. The typological significance should be obvious when put this way. The tomb is the beginning of the new creation. The project which began with a tomb from Ephron the Hittite for Sarah come to fruition in a tomb from Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus. New life begins where old life ends. As the author of Hebrews explained, no testament can take effect without a death.

Interestingly enough, this tomb, which eventually contained Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph at the least, was at Hebron. Hebron would later be completely under Canaanite control until Caleb took over during the conquest of Joshua. In time it would become King David’s initial capital, prior to him taking Jerusalem. So again for David Hebron was the site of a firstfruit, the guarantee of covenant fulfillment.

Taking these together, we find a connection between tomb and promise, death and resurrection. Bodies went in the tomb in anticipation that God would fulfill His promises and bring about greater glory. The tomb was the pledge of the ultimate blessing of Abraham, which would come through Abraham’s true Seed, Jesus Christ, who was laid in a tomb and was raised three days later. With this resurrection, an exit from the tomb, the promises made to Abraham came to a new stage of fulfillment. So the tomb is almost a storage unit or waiting area. Abraham and Sarah will be (or have been?) raised just as Christ was raised.

This connects to us as well. We enter the tomb through baptism as we are buried with Christ, and when we exit the water we anticipate that God will fulfill His promises, bring all things to completion, and raise us from the dead. But we are not actually raised yet, and so we live our lives in the tomb as a waiting area, with the Holy Spirit given as a pledge of the new life to come.

The Promise in the Tomb

Arms Open, Altars Closed: Thoughts on Conversion

[This is a post I wrote quite some time ago but which has not been published here.]

I just finished reading the behemoth that is The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul by Douglas Campbell. The book is quite interesting, even if some of its major ideas are rather unconvincing in the final analysis. In this case, it seems to me that the redemption is in the details, while the devil is in the big picture.

All of that is rather tangential to the point of this post, though. I mainly want to address something that came to mind for me while reading a section in TDOG about conversion. Campbell was pointing out the characteristics of conversion experiences as studied by sociologists. He explained that, contrary to ideal evangelical imagination, but rather like the actual experiences of evangelicals if we thought about it, conversions usually take place as the result of gradual shift from one community to another. The basic progression, according to research on people who convert between religions, seems to be something like this:

  1. Person introduced to (or has attention brought to) new religion by friends, family, or other persistent relationships.
  2. Person interacts more and more with new group, developing new relationships and connections.
  3. Gradually, the connections to this new group begin to outweigh connections to the old, and loyalties begin to shift.
  4. Person, according to the manner learned from the new group, makes a decisive change of association and identifies with the new group. Conversion is complete.

As far as I can tell, this appears to be about right. Certainly, I’ve watched it happen myself within Christianity, with denominations and individual churches. While of course there are exceptions, these do not seem to be particularly normative, and many (though by no means all!) of the people who make less progressive and more instantaneous “conversions” tend to be like the rocky soil, and they wither in no time. If we only count conversions that “stick,” this would seem to be an even more accurate account.

So reading this about conversion got me to thinking just how useful it really can be to invite people into our churches and welcome them with love and kindness. If someone is brought into a community of people worshipping Jesus Christ in faith, hope, and love, and those people actually do treat them in a radically gracious and genuinely invested way, this display of the Spirit through love really can do wonders, and can fill people’s natural social interactions with God’s power unto salvation. Nothing can make people want to follow Christ more than to see Christ’s life being truly embodied before their eyes by a community of His people proclaiming His Word.

Yet there is, it seems to me, a danger latent in this strategy. Welcoming the unbeliever into our association and love is certainly good, but appears to carry with it the danger of mere assimilation instead of conversion on its own. When we simply fellowship with and love and befriend the visiting unbeliever, we might run the risk of them eventually just thinking as though they are one of us, a true Christian and member of the Body, despite having never repented of their sins, responded to Christ in faith, or submitted to accountability within the Church as legitimate member. We might lose them one day to realize that we have lost a friend, but that this friend fell through the cracks of our love and acceptance without ever joining in the new and eternal life found in Christ.

So what can we do about this? How do we leverage the power of Spirit-filled community to draw people to Christ while simultaneously ensuring that people aren’t just silently absorbed without any defining encounter with Christ resulting in a conversion to faith and repentance? I think the proper answer to this potential difficulty lies in the proper use of the sacraments. I am a firm believer in weekly Communion, despite being immersed in a Baptist world where such practice is rare. One day I hope to remedy that. But that is rather beside the point.

Setting up baptism and Communion as strict distinguishing marks, I believe, provides the necessary protection against mere assimilation. Weekly Communion where only those who have been baptized may participate provides a constant and, depending on how Communion is performed, potentially quite conspicuous reminder of the difference between being in Christ, part of His Body, and outside Christ, still part of the world. Even when the unbeliever is loved and welcomed and finds himself deeply wanting to be one of these people and share in their (Spirit-filled) life, the dividing line of Eucharistic separation is bound to create a tension which will have to be resolved at some point, either by abandoning the community he has grown attached to or by converting and joining that community. Arms wide open and altars narrowly restricted, a powerful love and a burning awareness of distinction, should act as the opposite pressures driving the potential convert in one of two directions: join the Body and its Christ or flee from both.

As another thought, I suspect the impact of this could be further enhanced by weekly fellowship meals, with Communion taking place immediately prior to the general eating. If you want to stay and eat with all of the people you are growing to love but must first watch only those committed to union with one Christ participate in a celebration of Him, I expect the decision-driving tension would only grow more powerful. In the end, the idea is to create a fellowship so attractive, virtuous, welcoming, and gracious that all want to become a part, but to make a public commitment to Christ in baptism the only path to truly do so. I suspect this will weed out many who are not truly concerned, but will provide opportunity for strengthening for those who might find themselves being drawn. May this be what happens, no matter what we actually do.

Arms Open, Altars Closed: Thoughts on Conversion

60 Second Overview of Perspectives on Baptism

Here are the major perspectives on baptism, what it is and does, within Christianity, really briefly:

Baptist (aka Zwinglian)
Baptism is purely symbolic. It does not do anything except make a public statement about what your new identity in Christ. It comes after salvation and plays no role in the process. It should be by full immersion, and only administered to professing believers.
Reformed (Modern)
Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. It does not save you, or contribute to your salvation, but the Holy Spirit uses it to reassure you of the grace you have already received. It makes you a member of the visible Church, and should be administered to the children of believers just like circumcision was for Israel. Immersion is not necessary; sprinkling or pouring is acceptable.
Reformed (Classical/Calvinian)
Baptism is mysteriously related to regeneration (new birth). While baptism does not automatically regenerate, and people can be regenerated without baptism, regeneration and forgiveness usually happen alongside baptism for those who receive it in faith. Apart from faith, baptism does nothing. It should be administered to infants, for the same covenantal reasoning as the modern Reformed view.
Lutheran
Baptism saves, not by itself but because it is accompanied by the Gospel. Baptism is a real symbol; it is the Gospel in the form of a physical act. Those who receive it in faith are born again and forgiven all of their sins. The Word of God and the Holy Spirit do the real work: baptism is just one form of the Word. Because the power is in the Word, immersion in not necessary, and sprinkling is fine. It should be administered to infants for the sake of their salvation.
Churches of Christ
Baptism saves, not by itself but because it is your response of saving faith. Faith without works is dead, and the first work of faith is baptism. You are saved by grace through faith at baptism. Immersion is mandatory. It should not be administered to infants because they cannot respond to God in faith.
Roman Catholic
Baptism saves by the principle of ex opere operato (“from the work worked”). The act of baptism, simply because Jesus has commanded it, cleanses from past sins and original sin and brings someone into the Church. Salvation is, however, not completed at baptism. Penance and confession are necessary for sins after baptism. Immersion is not necessary; sprinkling is perfectly fine, if not preferred. It should be administered to infants to remove original sin.

Well, those are the major positions. Some less common perspectives on baptism, such as Federal Vision and Eastern Orthodox positions, are both too rare and too similar to others listed for me to bother mentioning. For Bible verses on the topic, see here.

60 Second Overview of Perspectives on Baptism

Jesus Lived for Us: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ

Another sermon manuscript, one that I preached this morning. This was actually meant to lead into Communion, which you will see that it does.


His Whole Life Matters

This morning, I want to start by asking a simple question. In fact, it’s a good little church question which a bunch of church people should have a pretty easy time answering. So here’s the question: what are some things that Jesus did for us?

One thing which I did not hear anyone say: that Jesus lived for us. And the fact that I didn’t hear this, and didn’t really expect to, is exactly why I want to preach about this topic. Jesus did not only die for us, but lived for us as well, and this is what I want to look at today.

See, I know two great short slogans which can summarize the Gospel. One of them is “Jesus in our place.” That is pretty great, isn’t it? The other is “God in Christ for us.” Both of these are, I think, very good ways to sum up the Gospel in only a couple words. But what’s something they both have in common? Neither one is only about Jesus’ death. The whole Jesus—life, death, and resurrection—is in our place, and God is and was in the whole Christ for us.

Now, the specific way that Jesus lived for us which I want to talk about today is a doctrine with a ridiculously technical sounding name, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds. It’s called the vicarious humanity of Christ. I realize it sounds a bit much, but it’s pretty straightforward. The Christ part is obviously just Jesus, the humanity is of course His being human, and we know as well what vicarious means. It’s one person or thing in place of someone else. In this case it is Jesus, as a human, being a human in our place.

How Jesus Lived for Us

But what exactly does that mean? And what impact should it have on our lives? I want to look at the whole thing in two parts, and so I don’t get carried away I’ll only mention them one at a time. The first part is, as I just mentioned, that Jesus lived for us. From the beginning to the end, from Christmas to Easter, every moment of Jesus’ life was something He did to save us. It didn’t just start counting when He got baptized and began His ministry. It didn’t wait to be meaningful for Him to ride on a donkey into Jerusalem. And it didn’t just start when He was led to the Cross. What Jesus was doing as a human being to save us started when the virgin conceived, and it’s still going.

But how does that work? What does everything Jesus did besides the Cross do for us? To answer this question, I want to look into the concept of the covenant. The basic idea here is that God created a covenant relationship with mankind, where God promised to be our God and He called us to be His people. But from Adam onward, humans have consistently failed to keep up our end. But God is faithful, and He is not willing to let us go so easily. Since we couldn’t seem to manage a right response to God, God Himself became one of us in Jesus Christ, and as a human being fulfilled the human side of the covenant. He gave a saving call to us, and then He answered that call as one of us for all of us. By doing this He created an actual, reconciled relationship between God and man. And that is eternal life.

Now, I’ve said all of this without referencing too much straight from the Bible, so I want to dive in a bit deeper. First, we can see the pattern of God calling us into a relationship with Himself, especially a covenant relationship, throughout Scripture. Some people see this in the Garden of Eden, though not everyone agrees with that. But after that, it just keeps coming. God makes a covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 to never destroy the world with a flood and kill everything in it again, which hints at more grace in the future. Next God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising both to bless his descendants and to bless the entire world through them. Then from Exodus through Deuteronomy we see God making a covenant with Israel, a people which Deuteronomy 9:4-5 tell us were no better than anyone else, to be their God, give them a land, and save them from all their enemies. And of course, after this King David receives a covenant from God for an eternal dynasty.

But the problem is that there’s another theme running right alongside this. God keeps making covenants to bless us and bring us to Himself, but we’ve been resisting and breaking them since day one. In Genesis 3, there’s the Fall as the first instance of man just resisting God’s grace to do his own thing. Then in Genesis 9, right after God makes a covenant with Noah and blesses him, Noah gets drunk and passes out naked, leading to a curse on a whole body of his descendants. Then Abraham is given a promise for a son and for a land, but in both cases he takes serious missteps, relying on human help like maidservants and Egyptian surpluses when in need. And of course, once we get to Israel we are all too familiar with their repeated history of God showing mercy, and them falling right back into the same sins. And David, well, we all know how far he fell and how this ultimately led to his kingdom divided two generations later. This whole pattern gets worse and worse until eventually God’s people lost it all in exile.

But what’s great is that right at this point, when it is clear that Israel is a failure and God’s plan to bless the world looks doomed, Jesus shows us. He appears at the center of all these circles and covenants. And at this point we have to combine the idea of representation with substitution. Jesus, by being in the center of all this, represented as soon as He came on the scene all the world in Himself. How does this work?

Let’s go back and trace these lines. God created everything, and then He made man at the top, the pinnacle of creation. So man, by being steward over creation, also stands as the representative at the top of creation. Then comes Israel. They were, as I mentioned before, just one nation out of many. Deuteronomy 9:4-6 says:

When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land”; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.

They were just like everyone else, but were called to bless the world. So now there’s another layer of Israel standing before God as a microcosm of all humanity. But next come the priests and the kings. The priests minister before God constantly on Israel’s behalf, and once a year the High Priest himself represents all Israel when he goes to make atonement in the Holy of Holies. Same goes for the kings, who God treated as a representative of the whole nation, something you can see among other places in how God handled David’s sinful census at the end of Numbers.

Now Jesus sits right in the middle of each of these circles and layers. He is our High Priest, as Hebrews tells us, and the King of Israel, as the Gospels tell us. He is the Son of Man, a man born of a woman. He is, as Colossians 1:15 says, the firstborn over all creation. Basically, as the King and Priest He represents and substitutes for all Israel. As Israel He represents and substitutes for all the rest of humanity, who are no different. And as humanity, He represents and substitutes for all creation. This one man, Jesus of Nazareth, lived as the center of all creation, as the representative and substitute of everyone everywhere. So He lived in our place and for us. He gave God the perfect response of human faith and obedience which He called us to give, and since He was doing that in our place, He won salvation for us all. Saint Irenaeus, who was actually a disciple of a disciple of John, said this:

He [Jesus] fought and conquered…He was the man who struggled for his fathers and through his obedience cancelled their disobedience.

And of course, this obedience had to lead to the Cross, too. If Jesus was going to identify Himself as this representative, He had to face our doomed fate and die with our weakness. But even then, He rose from the dead. So while being our representative and substitute, He came back from death. This was the how the whole thing was completed. He came out victorious, and He came out in our place. All this added up to giving us eternal life, which Jesus Himself defined as a fellowship between God and man when He said in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

Finally, before I move on to my next point, I just want to read Hebrews 5:7-10 and then quote Gregory of Nazianzus. Hebrews 5:7-10 says:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

And here’s what Saint Gregory has to say about all this:

For that which he has not assumed [that is, taken on Himself as a human] he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.

How We Live from Jesus

Wow. As far as I’m concerned, this stuff alone is awesome enough, and is probably worth at least a year’s worth of preaching. But, I want to go ahead and move on to my second part. As if it weren’t enough that Jesus lived for us in such an awesome way, I want to add a second, following point. Jesus lived for us, and now we live from Him. What’s that mean? It means that none of our human faith and obedience started in us. It all started in Him.

The key passage for this is Galatians 2:19b-20. Unlike what I usually do, I’m going to read this one in the KJV, and I’ll explain why in a minute.

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

What I especially want to point out is the phrase, “the faith of the Son of God.” If you don’t have a KJV, it probably says “faith in the Son of God.” This is because of the funny Greek behind it, which could in theory be translated in four major possible ways:

“faith of the Son of God”

“faithfulness of the Son of God”

“faith in the Son of God”

“faithfulness to the Son of God”

Now, obviously the biggest difference is that the first two are about something Jesus has, whereas the second two are about something we have towards Jesus. What is interesting to note is that while most translations since the KJV have picked “faith in the Son of God,” many modern scholars have been moving back to agree with the KJV on one of the first two options, the faith or faithfulness of the Son of God. This fits what the rest of the passage is saying. Yes, we believe. Yes, we obey. But even though it is us, it’s also not really us but Jesus living in us. It’s not just our faith, but faith rooted in Jesus’ careful trust of the Father during His earthly life. It’s not our faithfulness, but Jesus’ faithful obedience to His Father. We only share in these because we are, like Paul, in Christ. We died with Him to sin, and have been raised with Him to a new life, His own life.

Possibly, though, some of you may be wondering what I mean by Jesus’ faith, and how for that matter we can live from it. So I’ll go back a bit. Jesus, as I said before, lived the perfect human life in relation to God as our substitute and representative. He did everything for us that God wants us to do. He had faith in His Father, as Hebrews 12:2 says that He is the author and perfecter of our faith who pushed forward faithfully to obey God. And if “faith of Christ” is the correct reading from before, then in Scripture we have several good references to Jesus’ faith and its role in saving us, such as Romans 3:22, Galatians 3:22, and Philippians 3:9.

Jesus also repented for us. Now I realize that sounds weird. How can Jesus repent from sin if He didn’t have any sin? See, the basic point of “repent” is to turn away from something. So Jesus never sinned, but He was constantly turning away from sin when it reared its ugly head to tempt Him. We can see a great example of Jesus doing that in both Matthew and Luke 4, where He resisted all the temptations Satan put before Him and came out victorious. This vicarious repentance is exactly what makes it possible for us to repent, even when we’ve already sinned.

Another thing Jesus did for us was good works. I would give some Scripture to prove that, except for the fact that it is probably pretty obvious. Jesus healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, forgave poor sinners, fed the hungry, and throughout His whole ministry did act after act of compassion and mercy. These good works of Jesus are, again, the source of our good works. Whenever we do mercy or show love to people who need it, we’re participating in what Jesus Himself did, connected to Him by the Spirit.

Finally, of course, Jesus died for us. This is another one that is too obvious to need any specific verses references. In our place, as our representative and substitute, Jesus faced the death due to us sinners. By doing this He killed our old man, the flesh, and then rose again and created for us the new man.

Now, all of this that Jesus did is the ground for our Christian life. When we, as Paul says, walk according to the Spirit, what is happening is that the Holy Spirit is pouring into us the very faith, repentance, good works, death, and resurrection of Jesus Himself from His human life. Because He was man, the sanctified, set-apart life that He lived has become the source of our sanctified lives, something that again ties into Hebrews 5:9.

So because of all this, everything that we do as a Christian, not our fleshly works but our spiritual ones, comes straight from Jesus. It is us, but not us, but Christ living in us. We live by the faith of the Son of God, and the end result of this transformation worked out by the Holy Spirit is fellowship with God the Father through Jesus Christ His Son. And that, in my humble opinion, is altogether wonderful.

Abiding in Christ

So what is the application here? How should this truth, the vicarious humanity of Christ, the fact that Jesus lived for us and we live from Him, impact us? I can think of two major things.

The first is that this doctrine should give us more assurance than ever. Our salvation in every last part is of Christ, not of ourselves. And if it is not of ourselves, our own weaknesses and failures can’t hurt it. There is nothing left to trust in ourselves for. If we believe, that’s from Jesus, who believed perfectly. Even if we don’t believe enough, Jesus did for us. If we do good works, that’s from Jesus, who did the most good of anyone ever. If we don’t do enough good works, Jesus did for us. Like Romans 8:1 says, there is no condemnation because we are in Christ Jesus. We are secure in His arms.

This ties into the second application, though. If every part of our new life comes from Jesus, then we have no choice but to abide in Him if we want to live. John 15:4-5 says it well:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

These verses show that we have to rely on Jesus for everything. We have to stay connected with Him to live. So how do we do that? How can we abide in Christ and stay connected? I’ll finish with just a few examples.

Prayer is the first key. In prayer we communicate with God Himself, mediated by Christ our High Priest, with the help of the Spirit’s intercession. This keeps us connected to Christ and gives us His strength.

Scripture is also vital. When we read Scripture with the help of the Spirit, we see Jesus more and more clearly. He said Himself that all the Scriptures testify of Him, so when we read them we grow to know Him even more.

Another important part of abiding in Christ is being a part of His church. The church is His body, a called out community of people bound by His Spirit to each other for service and worship. We cannot abide in Christ without abiding in His body.

Then there’s what most call sacraments, but Baptists usually call ordinances. The first of course is baptism. Anyone not baptized ought to be, because in baptism the Holy Spirit grips us with the visible act and says, “Look! You have died and risen with Christ! You are a new creation!” We can think back on baptism and just remember what a perfect picture it is of what Jesus has done for and with us.

Finally, though, there’s also Communion, which we’ll be practicing today. Baptism is the one time sign of our union with Jesus, but Communion is the ongoing one. When we have Communion, we get to experience a spiritual reminder of how we depend on Christ for our life. Just as we need food and drink, the bread and the cup, to survive physically, so spiritually we rely completely on the life of Jesus which was given for us. Having Communion pushes our hearts towards that reality and remind us that our life comes only from Christ, because He chose to live for us. I’ll finish with a quote from T. F. Torrance and then turn it over:

As one summoned to the Holy Table [the Christian] is commanded by the Word of God to live only in such a way that he feeds upon Christ, not in such a way that he feeds upon his own activities or lives out of his own capital of alleged spirituality. He lives from week to week, by drawing his life and strength from the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, and in the strength of that communion he must live and work until Christ comes again. As often as he partakes of the Eucharist he partakes of the self-consecration of Jesus Christ who sanctified Himself for our sakes that we might be sanctified in reality and be presented to the Father as those whom He has redeemed and perfected (or consecrated) together with Himself in one. Here He is called to lift up his heart to the ascended Lord, and to look forward to the day when the full reality of his new being in Christ will be unveiled, making Scripture and Sacrament no longer necessary.

Jesus Lived for Us: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ

Being Christians: Marked Out as God’s People

My current reading project is The New Testament and the People of God by N. T. Wright. I hope one day to finish the entire series of which this is the first book, namely Christian Origins and the Question of God (for that matter, so does Wright). It’s been a very interesting study so far, covering the nature of literature and history, epistemology, Jewish history, the first century Jewish worldview, Christian history, and now the worldview of the first century Christians. An important part of studying worldviews is the study of praxis, what people in a group (in this case people within the mainstream first generation Church) do.

According to Wright, the distinctive elements of early Christian praxis could be summed up in a few major categories: mission, sacrament, worship, ethics, sacrifice, and martyrdom. In each of these areas, Christians were noticeably different from the rest of the world, which consisted basically of pagans and Jews. The gist of the differences is as follows:

  • Mission:
    The early church had evangelistic fervor. Unlike the pagans, the Christians spread their teachings with enthusiasm and love. They used their lives instead of legal decree to lead people to the truth. Unlike the Jews, who mostly kept their religion to themselves and frowned upon Gentiles, the Christians felt themselves compelled to persistently offer their good news to all the world.
  • Sacrament:
    The early Christians took baptism and Communion for granted. Every new convert was hastily baptized, and they regarded their baptisms as having significance to new creation and union with Christ. Every time they met (or nearly so) they partook of the Lord’s Supper together. No pagan rituals were anything like this. The Jews’ closest equivalents were baptizing Gentiles converts to Judaism, though it was never given the significance of Christian baptism, and Passover, which was a far more elaborate (and legally binding) ritual than the simple sharing of bread and wine.
  • Worship:
    The worship of Christians is perhaps the most distinctive point. The pagans worshipped very many gods and goddesses, one for almost every part of the natural and supernatural worlds. They also were legally obligated to worship Caesar. Jews, of course, worshipped only one God, Yahweh, and believed all other gods to be shams. Christians continued the Jewish tradition of worshipping one God alone, contrary to the pagans, but in a manner strange and scandalous to Jews included Jesus, a crucified carpenter/prophet from Nazareth, in the worship of their God, though at this time they didn’t explain exactly why or how that worked.
  • Ethics:
    Even secular historians who thought poorly of Christianity were astounded at the virtuous lives of the early Christians. They did not, like the pagans, engage in any kind of sexual immorality. They refused to lie or cheat or steal. Unlike many Jews, they demonstrated love, hospitality, and grace to people of every kind, even the worst of sinners or the lowest members of society. Any accusations made against Christians could only be against rumors of what they might do in secret, or against their dangerous doctrines. They character was generally impeccable.
  • Sacrifice:
    Possibly the strangest way that Christians were different for a religious group was how they handled sacrifice. Unlike both pagans and Jews, they never performed sacrifices, easily one of the most basic elements of religion at the time. They felt a need neither to satisfy pagan gods nor to continue participating in the Levitical priestly system. Instead, if they spoke of sacrifice at all, it was in reference to their Jesus dying for them, or of their own suffering for Him.
  • Martyrdom:
    Pagans saw no need to die for their faith. If anything, they worshipped their gods in order to be saved from death. The Jews had martyrs, but never so many as the Christians, who at times died almost daily. The Christians were noticed for the way they seemed to spit in death’s face, as though it had already been defeated.

In these ways, the Christians stood out blatantly from the rest of the world. They were nothing like the pagans, and their new message directly undermined mainstream Judaism. Indeed, their differences were so striking that they were by some classified as a totally new kind of people or race. You had Greeks, Jews, barbarians, and now Christians. 

This, of course, was right to be the case. We all know as Christians that God has called us to a new and different life than that of the world. We are holy, that is, set apart. We are the ekklesia, the called out ones. In a world of Gentile sinners and unbelieving Jews, we are the true Israel, the true humanity. God has redeemed the human race, and we are the firstfruits in Christ. The overlap between the kingdom of God and this present age is found in the Church. Therefore we ought to be different in very notable ways from those who are still in Adam, who have yet to experience God’s new life created in Jesus and applied by the Holy Spirit.

So what is my point now? Upon reading the section on early Christian praxis in The New Testament and the People of God, I started thinking of ways that we can today still stand out in each of these categories. We are still God’s people, and still as such should be set apart. But how? I’d like to quickly run through some ideas based on what I’ve mentioned about the early church. We can, like our spiritual ancestors, be different in these ways:

  • Mission:
    The world today has many causes and missions. But your average people don’t think much about them. You don’t expect to meet any random person and find them on a mission to convince someone of this or accomplish that. When you do, it’s an exception, and usually thought of as weird. That last thing our culture condones is any kind of mission in personal, day-to-day interactions which says in any absolute terms, “What I have to say is for everyone, period. It’s not a matter of opinion. You won’t get away with ignoring or rejecting it.” Yet we are called to tell the whole world that Jesus is Lord, that He died and was raised for the sins of all people, and that He will return to right every wrong and heal the world with new creation. If we do this in our everyday lives and interactions, and yet also do it with love and grace instead of the stereotypical condemnation or Hellfire scare, we will stand out and people will notice that we have a unique message with a unique method.
  • Sacrament:
    If you ask people what they associate with church, you will rarely hear anything about baptism or Communion. Yet these rituals were defining for the early Christians, so much so that on the basis of their secret Communion meetings people accused them of cannibalism. We must learn to make baptism a big deal, so that no one will think of becoming a Christian apart from in Christ dying to sin and rising to Spirit-led life. To demand with the utmost seriousness a physical act of identification and commitment as the first step of a religion that’s actually not a cult will raise eyebrows and get noticed in our culture. With Communion, as well, if we make it our constant and weekly practice, investing it with both its proper sanctity and its vitality, then we will find that all church visitors or seekers will be confronted every time they come: you need Jesus’ body and blood, but you can’t share in these while you deny Him with word and/or deed. The need to repent and enter the loving community of those who do feast on Christ’s benefits will be evident and, again, strange to a world that’s all about including everyone.
  • Worship:
    As it stands, formal worship is not a part of the lives of most people in the world, so participating in Christian worship at all stands out some. Yet people expect this for churchgoers. What is required to actually stand out in worship is two-fold: we must let worship flood the rest of our lives, so that praise for the Creator and gratitude to our Redeemer is evident in all we say and do. We must also be different in what we refuse to worship: we cannot let politicians, musicians, actors, speakers, authors, government, business, or anything or anyone else own our allegiance or affections.
  • Ethics:
    To stand out in ethics, we have a lot to do. The world thinks of itself as good. Part of what we must do as God’s restored humanity is live our lives so blamelessly and virtuously that we prove them wrong. This will mostly take the form of everyday details. While of course on larger matters like abortion and homosexuality, we stand out, these are not what make us stand apart in ways that are really valuable. The ways which count most are small. Don’t gossip at the water cooler. Don’t try to cheat anyone, or lie about all the things people think it’s okay to lie about. Don’t flatter to the face or curse behind the back. Don’t speak in vulgar ways. Don’t try to get any revenge, or hold grudges, or even just mention that you hope someone “gets what’s coming to them.” If you disagree with someone, make sure any discussion includes clarity and charity. Don’t accuse people who disagree with you of anything without doing research from their side. Don’t demonize people. Be hospitable. Welcome strangers into your home (that one in particular stands out these days). Love everyone all the time. Participate in culture while refusing to take part in the sins involved. All these little differences add up and can make us a peculiar people.
  • Sacrifice:
    Nowadays, in mainstream society no one performs animal sacrifices. So how do we stand out? Two ways come to mind. First, our society believes that we must make personal sacrifices, doing special good, to atone for our sins. We must sacrifice for forgiveness. That people believe this is clear enough if you watch any TV. We must respond with a resounding “No!” and proclaim that forgiveness is accomplished exclusively through Jesus. The other point is that people of the world offer lots of sacrifices in their daily lives which we must not take part in. People sacrifice all the time with their families to make money. When they get the money, they sacrifice their means of blessing others on the altars of the gods Technology and Luxury. Some people sacrifice their children to the goddess Fame by passing them through the fire of the entertainment industry. They sacrifice their marriages for the sake of personal fulfillment. To appease the wrathful god of Sexual Liberation, they sacrifice their bodies and hearts to people they know should not have them. All of these sacrifices, and more, made in worship of money, the American Dream, education, progress, autonomy, sex, or self-expression—we must refuse to participate in any such rituals. When we do, we will be noticed. Indeed, our society still worships the same gods as the Greeks did; they just call them by their normal names—sex, alcohol, wealth, etc.—instead of Aphrodite, Dionysus, or Plutus. And just like the Greeks did, people today think it is awfully strange when others don’t worship them as well.
  • Martyrdom:
    Martyrdom has always been unusual, so it remains one of the most powerful ways to stand out. Yet American Christians do not usually show the same spite of death that the early Christians were known for. Most still take great pains to make sure they stay healthy and whole. And to some extent this makes sense. We don’t live where you can be persecuted just for being a Christian. Yet our victory over death in Jesus must still be made known, because the watching world deals with death every day. So what we need are Christians willing to risk their lives and bodies by going on dangerous foreign missions, or even just living in dangerous parts of our own society. Christians who penetrate both hostile nations and American ghettos, who risk their lives both to take Bibles to Koreans and to help inner city youth escape crime and gangs. Those of us who are guaranteed a good resurrection by the Spirit must take advantage of this hope to accomplish the most risky ministries, and help everyone in need. Both in the evangelistic and in the socially beneficial, we ought to stick out our necks. Hanging out with people with serious, contagious diseases so they can know love and grace? That should be our work. Taking down violent criminal organizations and leaders? Who better to do that than men whose God told them to seek justice and then promised to raise them from the dead?

I hope by this point I’ve said at least something you may find helpful (goodness knows I’ve written quite a bit). If I’ve learned anything by studying the early church, it’s that Christians stood out like bright lights in dark places. Yet most modern American Christians (myself included more or less) seem to fit in well enough with our culture, sitting in the tidy little box of what the wider world thinks Christians are allowed to look like. I pray we will not stay this way, but that God by His Spirit will lead us all on to new things, so that we may be the light of the world as He has called us to. In Jesus name, amen.

 

Being Christians: Marked Out as God’s People

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved

“Now none of this matters if you don’t already have a relationship with Jesus Christ,” the preacher says with a shift of tone. “Without Him, you can’t live an abundant life. So here’s what I want you to do. With eye head bowed and every eye closed, if you want to accept Jesus Christ into your heart tonight and be saved from your sins, please raise your hands. No one looking around; it’s just me. It’s okay if you’re shy, just raise your hand since everyone else has their eyes closed. Now repeat after me…”

Ever heard anything like this? I’m quite sure that you have. This is, in a way, the climax of most special Christian events. After music and shenanigans and finally a sermon, the preacher seeks for people who want to accept Jesus. Of course, sometimes making such a public statement is a bit embarrassing. Who wants to admit they need Jesus tonight? So, in the interest of making sure people aren’t scare off at the invitation of the Gospel, it is only natural that we would ask everyone to close their eyes and give potential converts their privacy to make this personal decision of faith. Right?

I think this is dangerous, actually. Despite the good intentions, I am confident that this method of encouraging people to convert actually has very harmful side effects. The main problem is the creation of false believers. In fact, this method of invitation does away with the very call of the Jesus in the Gospel in favor of a seeker-sensitive, pandering call. Where the Gospel demands self-sacrifice, asking everyone to close their eyes for potential believers protects them from any need to sacrifice at moment one.

See, the true conversion which results from genuine encounter with Jesus through the Holy Spirit and a yielding of the soul to His grace should never take timid form. The major verse about becoming a believer, Romans 10:9, says this: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” But where is the confession when the new believer is told he can come in secret, with no one else watching? Likewise, in Mark 8:38 Jesus promises this: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” There are lots of verses with this same theme. If you would come to Christ, you are not given the option of doing it covertly.

altar-call-1

This requirement should be no shock, anyway. How can someone who is actually coming to know the grace of Jesus refuse to make it known that they love Him? All such refusals are sinful. When we pander to them, we are saying, “It’s okay to let your pride get in the way of your Savior.” The motivations for keeping quiet cannot be good. It may be you’re too proud to admit you’re still a sinner in need of grace. It may be people think you’re already saved and you’re scared to show them otherwise. Perhaps you simply fear what people will think about you if you become a follower of Jesus. But to all this, the Scripture says that “if we deny Him, He will also deny us.”

So what should we do? When we open the invitation, we must make it clear that the call to follow Jesus is not easy, and involves self-denial all the way through. Instead of “everyone will close their eyes for you,” we should tell them, “If you wish to follow Jesus, crucify your pride, take up your cross, and follow Him.” But what if this means fewer people raise their hands? What if less people decide to accept Jesus because of this? Then I daresay we have lost nothing. For if someone is clinging so much to their pride that they won’t even sacrifice an initial confession of faith, then surely that person is not actually being led by the Spirit of God to salvation! If the Spirit is working in them at all, they must be resisting that work. Making it easy will only encourage people to think they are saved, to think they’ve been secured and converted and will make it to the resurrection, even when they have no faith beyond mental facts. This is what Jesus showed us in His ministry. He did not provide an easy call, but time after time said controversial and scary things, sometimes apparently trying to get rid of anyone not serious about following Him.

Honestly, I think part of the problem may lie in the pride of people performing such events. Not all are like this, but there are many who love the numbers more than the fruit, even without realizing it. The more tally marks they can make for people who raised their hands to accept Jesus, the more impressive their events will seem. Easy invitations make for large numbers of “salvations” which in turn bring attention to the ministry doing these things. But we must be willing to sacrifice even the image of our works for God if we wish to do right in leading people to the truth.

The real danger here, by the way, is not only adding to our lists more saved people than there really are, but creating people who believe they are secure and saved when they are still in their sins, never more to worry about their spiritual state because of one misleading event.  Their chance at salvation in the future may be seriously hindered because they think they have already found the life in Jesus, even though they only accepted an easy and impotent form of the Gospel. It is like a cancer patient who dies before his time, all because an incompetent doctor told him that he was cured when he really wasn’t, so he stopped seeking treatment. May God never let this happen!

So what do I propose, again? Let’s tell people the truth: you must die to yourself if you wish to follow Christ. In the simplest and first way, just don’t pander to their self-consciousness by giving them a moment of secrecy to make their “confession.” Make them confess Christ publicly or not at all. This the example of Jesus. In fact, if I were to have it my way, I would yank open a baptismal at the invitation and tell people, “Sacrifice your pride and your dry clothes if you truly believe. Confess Christ as Lord, repent, and be baptized in the name of the Jesus for your forgiveness!” This kind of radical call will not only keep people from falsely and shallowly converting to their soul’s detriment, but may even embolden and inspire those who the Spirit is working in, giving them a concrete way to express their new faith. In this way, we together with our new brothers and sisters can honor Christ as those who need not be ashamed.

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved

Is Baptism the Real “Sinner’s Prayer?”

A few weeks ago, I made a post discussing the Biblical correctness of the so-called “sinner’s prayer.” You can read that here if you haven’t already. My conclusion was that something akin to the sinner’s prayer is certainly warranted in receiving Christ, but that the common evangelical form has several pitfalls. Yet after hearing Francis Chan speaking on baptism (on YouTube) recently, and doing some follow-up research, I saw an interesting idea some people hold:

Repentance and baptism are the Biblical way of doing what the sinner’s prayer is meant to do.

Continue reading “Is Baptism the Real “Sinner’s Prayer?””

Is Baptism the Real “Sinner’s Prayer?”