Church Is for the Church

What is a Sunday morning church service for? As Christians, we meet together on the first day of every week, the day of Christ’s resurrection. We sing songs, hear preaching, and (hopefully) take Communion. But why? What is the purpose and goal of this meeting?

To many people, our gathering together as the Church on Sunday is about evangelism, about reaching the lost. Contemporary, upbeat songs attract them, relevant preaching helps them see the usefulness of Christianity to their lives, and finally we invite them to make their professions of faith and perhaps join our church.

Let me be entirely clear from the outset: trying to reach the lost, or doing the things I just mentioned, is not at all bad. I could never say they are. Nonetheless, I believe that the outreach focus is not the right focus for our weekly meetings. As Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is a time and a place for everything, and, Biblically, our weekly gatherings as the Church are not, I am convinced, for evangelistic purposes, but for, well, the Church itself.

Scripturally, church (the weekly service) is for the Church (the people). It is not about reaching unbelievers, but about building up the Body of Christ. Honestly, it would be difficult to point to a particular proof text for this point, but that’s not because it’s unbiblical, but because it is the basic assumption of all the New Testament letters to the churches. Reading any of the letters makes this clear enough if you’re paying attention, but some passages that draw it into sharper focus might be 1 Corinthians 14, large portions of Ephesians, or the latter chapters of Hebrews.

Acts also shows this pattern. There are two parallel ministries in Acts: the evangelistic ministries which occurred out and about in society, and the gatherings of believers by themselves. There was public preaching to the crowds, and after and apart from that the believers gathered together devoting themselves “to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

In fact, this verse I believe sums up how Church is meant to work. In order to become the people we need to be to reach the world for Christ from Monday to Saturday, we must participate in the right Body-building, sanctifying activities together on Sunday. We learn from the apostles’ teaching how to live the Christian life rightly, so that we please God and win people to the beauty of the Gospel life. In fellowship we encourage and assist one another as fellow believers to spur each other on to good works, to reassure doubts, to share burdens and joys, and to share insights and experiences with our common Savior. By the breaking of bread in Communion, we recall the sacrifice of Christ in the past, enjoy His sustaining power for us in the present, and train ourselves to live in anticipation of the resurrection life which we will share with Him in the future. Finally, our collective prayers invite God’s supernatural power and presence into our life together as the Body of Christ. 

These means of sanctification—preaching, fellowship, sacraments, and prayer—are the essential elements of our weekly gatherings as the Church, in addition to worship, and yet are explicitly believer-oriented. Only believers can “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching” in a productive and transformative way. Only believers can encourage one another with the Gospel, share burdens in Christ, and build each other up with their spiritual gifts. Only believers are permitted to take Communion and so feed on the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood given for us. Only believers have unfettered access to God’s throne of grace for prayer. And only believers know to worship God in spirit and in truth.

The point is fairly simple, then. Our meetings as the Church are meant to be by the Church for the Church. Unbelievers are, of course, welcome. They can come to hear the Gospel, which is always a good thing. We can love them and show them the life of Christ in its beauty. Yet the presence of unbelievers in our meetings is assumed in the New Testament to be occasional and potential rather than normal and intentional (see 1 Cor. 14:23). The basic and important pattern is the gathering of Christians to be Christians.

I again emphasize, though, that this is not at all to say anything against evangelistic outreach towards unbelievers. In fact, I would instead say that the church-for-Church model is an essential part of reaching unbelievers. By concentrating on the strengthening and renewing of our life in Christ together when we meet on Sundays, we can become more and more able to reach the world around us the rest of the week. This is, in fact, exactly what the earliest Christians historically did. They met together early Sunday morning before going to work (as Sunday was a workday for them) for the benefits I mentioned above, and then they set out on their weeks to be the best followers of Christ they could be in the sight of unbelievers. The Lord’s Day was a time to recharge together in the presence of the one Lord, so that by His Spirit they would be empowered to fulfill the Great Commission when they went their separate ways.

I believe we could do well to relearn this approach in modern times. It seems to be more Biblical, and have been more historically effective at producing active Christians, than seeker-sensitive or evangelistic approaches. And in fact, it stands as a challenge to us all specifically in evangelism. It’s harder to be a witness for Christ in our actual, daily lives and reach unbelievers there than to round them up for a Sunday preacher, after all. Maybe if we try we’ll find that the hard way is, as usual, the better.

“Christianity Isn’t a Religion” Is a Liberal Thing to Say

“Christianity isn’t a religion; it’s a relationship!” How many times have you heard that before? If you’ve moved in many of the same circles that I have, then you’re probably pretty familiar with it. I’ve argued against this line before, pointing out that a religion is simply a set of beliefs in some kind of higher power, and of course Christianity is that (though also far more). But there is another danger of this way of thinking that has come to mind, and I would to point it out briefly.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, there began the rise of German liberal theology. With science exploding, standards of living rising like the tide, and the world all around seeming to swing towards progress, humanity came to think pretty highly of itself. A belief in unaided human reason as the final arbiter of truth and falsehood, combined with a skepticism about the authority of traditions in such an age of novelty, led many people to question the truth of Christianity’s basic claims. Was Jesus real? Was He actually like the Bible says He was? Can we trust the Gospels? Do we really know anything about Jesus?

These problems led certain pastors, theologians, and churches to turn away from traditional beliefs about the truthfulness of Christian doctrine. Instead of a Jesus who really lived, died, and rose, and a real authoritative body of teaching about Him in the Scriptures, the focus became all about the individual experience of faith. Who knew who Jesus really was, what He really did, and whether He is truly God in some way? What mattered was how people felt about Him. Faith was something which happened inside, changing the person and their relationship to the world around them in positive ways, ways which were expressed in religious terms about Jesus. Ultimately, the religious experience of faith was supposed to be the point of Christianity.

Now, all of my evangelical Protestant friends out there who use the slogan “relationship not religion” wouldn’t agree with this. They wouldn’t do like the German liberals and deny Jesus’ deity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, etc. all in favor of a faith experience. But, there is one crucial similarity. The say that Christianity is a relationship instead of a religion betrays the same basic concern: what really matters is the individual experience of faith.

This is a serious problem. The “relationship not religion” attitude often pushes doctrine, the Church, sacrament, and other “religious” things to the side, instead making “experiencing God” in some subjective way the focus. It sounds, and often acts, as though your relationship with Christ doesn’t really need to involve right knowledge of Him, or fellowship and cooperative ministry with His people, or regular, tangible reminders of our union with Him. All it really needs is the right worship music, devotionals, and preaching to make you feel the love of Jesus in your heart. 

Essentially, this is the same goal as theological liberalism. Experience faith and love, which will help make you a better person, too. Good theology, a community of believers, and regular reenactments of what Jesus has done for us in fellowship are all nice things, but what really counts? Faith itself. Believing in something better, something divine, that changes you for the better.

The real danger of all this is taking the focus away from God to self. Instead of focusing on who Jesus is, what He has done for me, and what He is calling me to do in response, the “relationship not religion” line necessarily moves the focus to how I feel about Jesus, how authentic my faith is, and what about my life is being changed by it. These things matter, but not as the focus. My feelings, faith, and transformed life must be the free flowing result of letting Jesus be my all-in-all, not the all-in-all on their own.

Remembering that Christianity is a religion helps guard against this. Christianity as a religion is decidedly not about myself, but about the One whom this religion worships and follows. Being part of a religion with a Church means not doing it alone and for myself, but only as part of a larger community under the same Lord with the same mission. Having religious doctrine says that I can’t just make Jesus into my own image, but instead must allow myself to be corrected by the truth He has revealed. The religious sacraments mean that I am forced as often as I partake to face the reality to which they point, unable to continually put it all on the back burner without condemning myself.

So please, let’s bury the whole “Christianity isn’t a religion” thing. We’re not German liberals, and don’t need to be like them. There is more to Jesus than personal faith. We must recognize the larger picture and live it out.

5 Myths about End Times

Recently I’ve seen more Christians than usual warning about the imminent end. Perhaps in light of recent political events, an expectation/desire for Jesus to return has increased beyond the everyday. This has reminded me of several misconceptions people have about that time, the eschaton, so I figured I’d throw together this list of 5 popular end times myths.

  1. Wars, earthquakes, famines, and other disasters are signs that Jesus is just about to return. This is a common misconception, based on Mark 13:7-8 and the parallel verses. But this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus says in those verse. He tells the disciples “don’t panic” when you hear of such things. These must come, but “the end won’t follow immediately” (literally “the end not yet”). Instead, they must endure for quite some time, for this is only “the first of the birth pangs” and in the mean time they will need to “watch out” for persecution.
  2. Babylon the Great is America/Islam/[insert modern power here]. In Revelation 17-18, John gives a dramatic description of a great city, called Babylon, which has fallen to ruin. Many popular prophecy teachers like to associate this with America, Islam, or some other modern power perceived as a threat or wicked group. Yet the original historical context clearly identifies this as Rome. Rome was known as the city on seven hills (Rev. 17:9), and had by John’s time seven notable kings (17:9-10). The empire relied heavily on puppet kings in the provinces (17:7,12). For John’s original audience, nothing would have sounded more like a “great city that rules over the kings of the world” than Rome (17:18). Like the Old Testament prophets, John prophesied God’s judgment on a wicked nation oppressing His people.
  3. The last days are just starting, about to start, or recently began. Biblically, the “last days” doesn’t just refer to the very end, the time of the Tribulation and return of Jesus. The last days began with Jesus, when He through His life, death, and resurrection inaugurated the kingdom of God. We have been living in the last days for 2000 years. (See Acts 2:14-21, Heb. 1:2, Jas. 5:3, 1 Pet. 1:20.)
  4. Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 are all or mostly about the end times. Despite the common opinion, Jesus’ speech to His disciples on the Mount of Olives after He cleansed the Temple wasn’t mainly (or some people would say at all, but I’m not 100% sure about that) about the Tribulation and His future return. Instead, the primary point was the judgment about to come on Jerusalem, which happened in AD 70. Mark 13:1-4 and Luke 21:20-24 make this point the most clear. Jesus treated the impending fall of Jerusalem as an event of major theological significance, the last of God’s repeated judgments on His wayward people. He constantly warned them to repent or they would be desolated by Rome, just as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and the other prophets of old warned about other kingdoms. When Jerusalem fell national Israel would fall apart, and only the new Israel of Jesus followers would continue in God’s purpose for election.
  5. Jesus’s return will mean the end of space, time, matter, and planet earth. As I have argued in previous posts, the universe is not to be permanently destroyed any more than our bodies are to die forever. Just as we will die, when Jesus returns the world will be burned up, but this is not a permanent end. God will redeem His creation through the Spirit (see Rom. 8:19-22), and it will become a new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:1), just as we have become a new man/new creation (cf. Eph. 4:24, 2 Cor. 5:17). There is no Biblical evidence that it will be timeless, or simply spiritual, or non-physical, or that the earth will be gone forever. We’re not simply going to heaven forever; heaven is coming to us and recreating our world.

Heaven, Resurrection, and New Creation: Our Destiny in Christ

[This is a sermon I preached a week ago. Like my previous sermon, it is a long read.]

The Mismatch

I want to start out this morning with a few really simple and straightforward questions. No gimmick or trick; I’m just looking for totally natural answers.

What do you smell with? Your nose.

What do you see with? Your eyes.

What do you walk with? Your feet.

Okay, so now, what do all these things have in common? What are they all part of? Your body.

In that case, without body, could you do any of these things? See, hear, walk? No.

And where is your body after you die? In the ground.

So if after you die, your body is rotting in the ground, and you need your body to see, hear, and in particular walk, how can you be walking on streets of gold in heaven?

I’m guessing most people in here, and elsewhere, have never thought of or heard a question like this before. This to me indicates a fault, a crack, in the popular lines of teaching about heaven and life after death. I mean, this is a pretty basic concept. If we won’t have our bodies when we die, how can we be doing anything that involves a body while in heaven? A mismatch like this comes from years of confused traditions, and people randomly combining Bible verses from different contexts. Instead of the overall Biblical theology of life after death, we end up with a buffet collection of heaven parts from different categories. This morning I want to address what’s gone wrong, and how we can recover a Biblical vision of heaven and so on, a vision that might just change the way we see the world and live in it.

See, to be honest the entire emphasis in the church today on “going to heaven when you die” isn’t really from the Bible. The Bible doesn’t talk that much about that. It does talk about salvation and eternal life very often, but if you look through the Bible to see what those are about, you won’t find much about heaven, or even much about what happens when we die. What will you find? You will find something much better. In Scripture, the destiny of believers and the world isn’t just a spiritual place of being with God; it is resurrection and new creation. This is our eternal hope, not so much that Jesus will rescue us from this world, but that He will rescue us and this world from death and decay. Salvation doesn’t mean leaving space, time, and matter behind, but God renewing them all in Christ Jesus.

So I want to look at this all in three major points. (I am going to a Baptist college, after all.) The first is resurrection as the way we will experience eternal life. The second will be the relationship between heaven and the new creation as where we will experience eternal life. Finally, based on these two ideas, I want to look at the ways we get to begin living out eternal life in the here and now. By the end, I hope to have provided a clear vision of God’s gracious destiny for us and the way it can impact our lives.

As Christ, So Us: The Coming Resurrection

On, then, to my first point. Far more than what happens right after we die, Scripture points us to hope in a future bodily resurrection. This theme can be seen all throughout the Bible, starting with God’s promises to Israel. Isaiah 25:8 and 26:19 talk about God destroying death and bringing His people new life. In Ezekiel 37:1-10, God uses the image of resurrection to show Ezekiel His future restoration for Israel. Daniel 12:2 shows us the first verse in the Bible which says straight out that there will be future resurrection.

In the New Testament, resurrection comes into even sharper focus. By this time the Jews had already studied the Old Testament enough to believe in a future general resurrection (except for the Sadducees), and Jesus kept this theme alive. He rebukes the Sadducees about the resurrection in Matthew 22:29-32, promises repayment for generous giving at the resurrection in Luke 14:14, and explains how God gave the future resurrection and accompanying judgment over to Jesus Himself. Then, of course, Jesus Himself died and rose again.

Jesus’ resurrection set the stage for resurrection becoming even more important to the early Christians than it was for the Jews. Paul makes a big deal about the coming resurrection in Romans 8:1-11, 1 Corinthians 6:14, 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, Philippians 3:21, and 1 Thessalonians 4:14, among other places. Later on, Hebrews mentions the resurrection a few times, and Revelation tells the story of the future resurrection as clear as day.

With all of this Biblical evidence, and more that I haven’t listed, it should be clear how important the coming resurrection is meant to be. So in particular, I want to look at maybe the most important resurrection passage in the Bible. This is 1 Corinthians 15:12-58. It is long, and I will be here a while, but I won’t read it all right now. You should just be able to follow along with what I’m saying.

In this passage, Paul is responding to more trouble in the Corinthian church. They were mostly Gentiles there, which means they would be more influenced by popular Greek philosophies than the churches in Jewish regions. But Greek philosophy not only didn’t believe in resurrection, but thought it would be a bad thing. To most Greek philosophers, the body was at best unhelpful and at worst evil, so the goal was to escape it into spiritual bliss. Resurrection would seem nonsensical and unhelpful. Apparently, some people, probably from within the Corinthian church, were influenced by thoughts like this and so were telling others that there wouldn’t be a resurrection.

Paul got pretty riled up about this, though. As far as he was concerned, the resurrection was a very big deal. This is already different from what I hear in most churches. While most churches I’ve been in at least acknowledge there will be a resurrection, it isn’t given any emphasis, and the usual preaching is all about getting to heaven when you die. If you got rid of the resurrection, their normal preaching, teaching, and service wouldn’t really be affected. But in the Bible, that’s not an option. It’s a big deal that got Paul rolling on a long response.

So on to his response. In verses 15:12-19, Paul draws a strong connection between Jesus’ resurrection and our future resurrection. “If there is no such thing as a resurrection of the dead,” he says, “then even Christ hasn’t been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is without meaning, and our faith without meaning, also!” He’s going so far as to say that if we won’t be resurrected, then Christianity is altogether pointless. He goes on to say that without resurrection, both ours and Jesus’, we are still in our sins and those who died in Christ already are lost forever. Without resurrection, we’re pitiful.

The reason for this deep connection between our resurrection and Jesus’ is rooted in the Jewish hope that Jesus showed up in. Before Jesus, the Jews only expected one resurrection, the final event where God would save Israel. But then after Jesus’ resurrection, what the early Christians believed was that the one resurrection actually started with Jesus. So Jesus’ resurrection and our future resurrection were both considered the same event, just split into two parts. And the second part, our resurrection, depends on His in the first part.

But moving on, in 15:20-28 Paul says that just like everyone dies in Adam, everyone will be made alive in Christ. First Jesus rose, undoing Adam’s own death, and next everyone will rise, undoing the damage we all suffered because of Adam. By doing this, Jesus defeats death and every other enemy. When the end comes, He will reign over all creation, death itself defeated, and He will give His kingdom over to the Father so that God can be, as he says, “all and in all.” By saying this, Paul shows just how crucial the resurrection is for Jesus and the victory of God. Without resurrection, death would not be brought under God’s rule, and there would still be another enemy out there.

Still, the argument isn’t over. Like I said, Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit thinks that resurrection is a big deal, so he gives even more proofs. First, he mentions baptism for the dead. Now, we don’t actually know what he is talking about. We have no record of baptism for the dead. But it is worth noting that Paul doesn’t say “we” anywhere about it. It doesn’t sound like he or the other apostles performed these baptisms. But some people did, and what Paul says basically is, “Look, why would people even do that if there won’t be a resurrection?”

From that point, Paul also points out the suffering of him and the other apostles. Why would they constantly risk their lives and bodies if that would be the end of them? If there won’t be a resurrection, Paul says we ought to forget about risking becoming a martyr and just enjoy the good life. Notice that he doesn’t put our hope for risking our life in going to heaven when we die. He puts it in resurrection, just like the author of Hebrews does in Hebrews 11:35.

Now we reach 15:35-44. Paul was aware of some objections people raised about resurrection, and he had answers from the Spirit. I should also point out that people wouldn’t have these kinds of questions if heaven was the focus of Paul’s preaching. Only a real, physical resurrection invites these questions. But on to what he was saying. He compares the our current body and future body to a seed and a plant. Our current body is like a seed. Our resurrected body will be like a full grown plant. What that means isn’t about physical appearance, as though our resurrected bodies will look like something totally unrelated to our current ones. He tells us the difference. Using the analogies from nature, he shows that the resurrection body will have a new glory and different kind of life. Our bodies now, in their natural fallen state, are mortal, dishonored, weak, and merely natural. But like the seed transforms, so will we. Our bodies will become immortal, glorious, strong, and spiritual. I like the way C. S. Lewis said it: “the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.”

Unfortunately, modern ideas about what “spiritual” is may confuse us about verses 44-49. We are taught here that our natural body will become a spiritual body. Some people think that means our physical body will become a non-physical body, that our body made of matter will become a body made of spirit. This is certainly not what Paul is saying, as we quickly find out. First, I remind you about the seed analogy Paul used. Just like the seed and the plant, our current body and resurrection body will still be the same body, but changed. The natural body, made as simply a body from the dust of the earth, lives “according to the flesh,” that is, basically just like an animal of nature. The natural body is powered by basic biology and physical desires for needs like food, sex, and sleep. These things themselves aren’t bad, but the natural body only aims to satisfy these lusts at whatever cost, which produces the “works of the flesh.” It lives like there is no God, or grace, or Gospel call.

This is in contrast to the spiritual body. The natural body is rooted in Adam, who denied God’s call for the sake natural desires, but the spiritual body is rooted in Jesus, who lived out perfect communion with the Father and was driven by the Holy Spirit. The spiritual body is not a body made of spirit, but a body energized by the Holy Spirit, who helps us to live our Jesus’ own life connecting human nature and God Himself. This is how the “last Adam,” Jesus, became a “life-giving spirit.”

So the natural body and the spiritual body are a matter of nature and grace. The natural body is just a part of nature, acting like an animal to satisfy its instincts and desires. The spiritual body is raised by grace to live in God’s life in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. This is our destiny. No longer will we be controlled by our hunger, lust, sleep schedules, pride, instinct for self-preservation, or anything else purely natural. Our resurrected bodies will be filled with only the fruit of the Spirit.

Finally, in verses 50-57, Paul bursts into praise, excitedly summarizing the teaching of the resurrection. Mere flesh-and-blood, the perishable natural body, cannot inherit God’s coming kingdom, but we will be mysteriously transformed and rescued. In a moment, Jesus will return and all the dead will rise to immortal, imperishable bodies. This will mean the final defeat of death, and the victory God accomplished in Jesus will become a permanent and universal fact of the universe forever and ever.

Heaven for Now, New Creation Forever

So, with that awesome future in mind, I want to move on to the next point, that of where we will enjoy eternal life. After all, if we’re going to have physically resurrected bodies to enjoy forever, they’ll need to be somewhere. But this is where we need to be precise, because people tend to confuse two futures here. See, for the Christian there is both life after death and life after life after death.

Think back to what I was saying before about not having a body when you die. If you don’t have a body, what exactly is happening when you “go to heaven?” Where will we be in between death and resurrection? While we usually talk about this as heaven, the Bible never uses that word for where we go right after we die. Instead, it calls it either “paradise,” like Jesus said to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, or “Abraham’s bosom,” a common Jewish phrase Jesus also used in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Modern theologians usually refer to this as the “intermediate state.”

Now, despite the picture we get in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we shouldn’t think of this place as something physical, with senses and bodies. Parables aren’t about the literal details, after all. We’re not literally a younger son who runs away and squanders our inheritance. That’s a picture of the reality. The real point of this parable in context was Jesus criticizing the Pharisees for their love of money. By showing a nameless rich man as ending up in torment but Lazarus the poor man in bliss, Jesus turns their expectation on its head, especially since the Jews tended to assume that more money meant you could stay in God’s favor better because you could afford more sacrifices and tithes.

But back to what the intermediate state is Biblically like. Paul mentions it in 2 Corithians 5:1-9. There he says that if his earthly tent, his current body, is destroyed then we have a new, imperishable house in the heavens. This doesn’t refer to as heavenly mansion, but, just like the earthly tent, it’s a body. This is the resurrection body he described already in 1 Corinthians 15. He says that he wants this new body so that he doesn’t have to be naked, or unclothed, that is, stuck without a body. Nevertheless, he insists, he is still better off without a body and with Jesus than with a fallen body and away from Jesus. Resurrection and the new body is the hope to have both a body and Jesus at once.

So, without a body, we won’t have our sense. We can’t see, or hear, or taste when we die. Our bodies are in the ground, after all. Without legs, we won’t be walking on streets of gold. We won’t even think or feel the same way that we do now, because right now our physicals brains have a huge influence. Life will be completely different in between death and resurrection.

In fact, in a way it is kind of like sleep. It isn’t exactly the same as sleep. Death isn’t just a knockout where we wake up on resurrection day. But Psalm 6:5 wonders who will give thanks when dead? Psalm 88:11 asks rhetorically if anyone will praise God’s faithfulness in the grave? Ecclesiastes 9:5 says that the dead don’t know anything anymore, and verse 10 says that there isn’t any work, planning, knowledge, or wisdom in the grave.

If we want to take these verses seriously instead of, like many Christians, totally ignoring them or trying to slip around them, we get the distinct impression that we won’t be conscious the same way we are now. After death, it will be something like sleeping until resurrection day. Yet the martyrs’ prayer to God in Revelation shows that we won’t be completely out, or completely unconscious.

So to summarize the intermediate state, the Bible seems to teach that after death we enter a state of rest and bliss. We enjoy being in some way with Jesus, while not being completely awake. It’s a completely different way of existing than being in a body. No streets of gold or mansions yet. Just rest in the arms of God until He brings us back to life.

But, as I said, this is only until He brings us back to life. After the resurrection, our eternal destiny will be to live in the new creation, also called the “new heavens and earth.” To look at this theme, I want to start in Romans 8:18-23. This is at an important point, leading up the climax of the Gospel in Romans. At this point Paul has been speaking of redemption in Christ, our future resurrection, and new life in the Spirit. Now he pulls all of these themes, which he had been applying to us, to the whole of creation. He says that the whole creation is eagerly awaiting God’s redemption in His people. Creation has been stuck in corruption and futility, but when God redeems the human race, the pinnacle of creation, the whole rest of the universe will join in.

See, our resurrection is Biblically part of an even bigger divine project. I want to read two texts which show the big picture. Colossians 1:19-20 says “For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God. Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s blood on the cross and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven.” And Ephesians 1:10 talks about God accomplishing His gracious plan “to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.”

The entire project is new creation. It starts with us, just like 2 Corinthians 5:17 says. Anyone in Christ is a new creation. Our old man dies and is recreated as the new man by the Spirit in union with the resurrected Jesus. Then our bodies get involved as our old bodies die and are resurrected by the Spirit in union with the resurrected Jesus. Finally, as verses like Revelation 21:1 show, when everything else is finished, the old universe will pass away and will be recreated as a new heavens and earth by the Spirit in Jesus.

I want to emphasize this last part. God isn’t going to get rid of the space, time, and matter universe. A lot of Christians seem to think this way, but this misses entirely the connection between Jesus’ resurrection, our resurrection, and the new creation. Verses like 2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1, Psalm 102:26, or Mark 13:31, which talk about a catastrophic end for the world, aren’t to be seen as a total end anymore than our death will be a total end. Instead, like two of these verses specifically mention, this is only the death that leads to resurrection.

In fact, Jesus’ resurrection is key to understanding all of this. His physical body died. Three days later, that same body, same matter, came back to life and was transformed to new glory and immortality. His body wasn’t replaced, or turned into pure spirit, or annihilated. It came back to life, but more life than it ever had before. This is what will happen to our bodies, and this is what will happen to the whole world. The Bible teaches that the physical universe will die in fire and be raised to new life. All of the Old Testament prophecies and the New Testament ones imagine the new world in eternity as this world fixed and restored to God’s will and grace.

The most detail we have about the new earth is found in Revelation 21 and 22. These chapters describe especially what we might call, for lack of a better word, the “capital” of the new world, namely the New Jerusalem, which comes from God’s heaven to the new earth. John writes a dazzling description of this city using mostly vivid poetic descriptions taken from the Old Testament prophets. He tries to give us a glimpse of a world that is all as it should be, filled with the glory of God, and the end result of everything God has built through Israel and the Church in history.

With that in mind, we should be careful not to press the details for a physical picture of what the New Jerusalem will literally look like. John isn’t giving us a photograph of the world to come. It’s more like a van Gogh painting. He wants to raise the imagination to God’s promised new creation.

As one last point about this place before I move on, this is the only place where we find streets of gold mentioned in relation to the destiny of believers. And this isn’t heaven right now. It’s not where we go when we die. It is a future city, part of the new world God will transform ours into in the future. So we can see just another example of people confusing the different Biblical teachings, applying stuff from the new creation to present heaven. Yet the Bible itself doesn’t permit that.

So to pull this all together: this is our final destiny. It’s not eternity in a spiritual heaven. It’s resurrection and new creation. God’s heaven and our earth will finally join together to make the perfect world, the new heavens and earth, filled with the healing glory of God. This world isn’t new because it replaced the old, but because by God’s grace in Jesus and His resurrection He will transform everything everywhere into a greater reality than we could ever imagine now. It’s Earth 2.0, what the world was meant to be from the beginning.

Living in Hope

Hopefully, that’s an exciting vision, and my prayer has been that it is one you will see from the Scriptures is faithful to what God has said and done to and for us. But I’m not quite done. My point in all this isn’t just to get everyone to agree on what the Bible says about heaven. God doesn’t do things for no reason, and He certainly doesn’t reveal His plans for no reason. So for my last point, I want to look at the practical applications of this view of the Christian hope. How can knowing the destiny God has for us more Biblically change how we see and act in this world?

My key word on this point is “anticipation.” It’s not enough to simply believe what is coming. We must eagerly and actively anticipate it. And while it’s probably not enough, I can see three major ways to do so that I want to mention before I conclude. I think a Biblical belief in resurrection and recreation can give us a radical new opening for evangelism, a new ground for life that follows the resurrection pattern, and help us treat the physical planet we live on in a brand new way.

Let me explain the first one. In our society’s worldview, just like most other worldviews throughout history, resurrection simply isn’t a possibility. Anyone who thinks or says that someone will come back to life gets crazy looks and probably ridicule. Even the wildly popular show LOST, known for supernatural craziness happening left and right, held that “dead is dead” and no one ever actually came back to life even when you thought they did. It’s not the same if you talk about going to heaven. Most people think that’s fine and possible. In fact, a whole lot of people think they’re going there. But how many people expect to be raised bodily from the dead and enjoy eternal life on a recreated planet earth?

Just imagine. If you tell someone, “I’m going to heaven when I die. Are you?” they’re not all that likely to be surprised or challenged at all. People are familiar with this kind of witnessing. But, imagine if you said, “Well, I’m coming back to life after I do. How about you?” It’s shocking and subversive and perhaps a bit exciting as well. Preaching “dying and going to heaven” has nowhere near the possibilities for inviting people to fresh listening about the Gospel when compared to the hope of resurrection.

Then there’s my next example, the power of resurrection for Christian living. In this world, it is often hard to kill sin and live righteously. But Paul always connects the victorious Christian life to Jesus’ death and resurrection. The connection he points to is the Holy Spirit. He tells us that the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us, so we can access that same resurrection power in the here and now.

The point of this is highly practical. If this Spirit could take a dead body and bring it back to life, certainly He can take our inner death and turn it around to new life. He is the one who makes it possible to crucify the old man with Christ and live as the new man from the risen Jesus. By sharing in Jesus’ resurrection through the Spirit, we can die to our flesh and self, refusing sinful desires, and instead live to God, raised in power to love and serve to a supernatural degree.

The power of resurrection for Christian living is even more clear when it comes to taking risks for the Gospel. The worst thing that could happen is that someone could kill us or our families, but if we know that we are promised resurrection then we don’t even have to fear this. We know that our bodily life won’t end when the world tries to stuff us out; instead we will be raised and vindicated publicly in the end. In fact, this was the motivation for all the early Christian martyrs. They were well known for spitting in the face of death, and they did this precisely because they believed that Jesus’ resurrection meant they would be raised to. With resurrection, we have nothing and no one to fear on this earth. This even includes every government, however much they might end up opposing us.

But finally, I want to point out the way that anticipating a new creation which is still connected to the present world can change the way we see it and all handle it. See, if this world isn’t going to be permanently destroyed, or be totally replaced, an interesting question comes up. What stuff on earth right now will still be around in the new earth?

This is where we find room to use a Biblically-controlled imagination. We don’t know exactly how what is on the earth now will translate into what is on the new earth. John could barely describe the place except in the most enigmatic of rich images. So what we are called to remember is what Paul told the Corinthian church on the basis of resurrection and recreation: “Therefore, my dear friends, stand firm, unshaken, always diligent in the Lord’s work, for you know that, in union with him, your toil is not in vain.”

See, what Paul tells us is that resurrection and recreation guarantee that our work in the here and now have eternal impact, because not only will saved souls last forever, but indeed the whole creation will endure once God redeems it. In fact, what Paul says about Christianity ministry in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 about ministry he would probably connect to all work Christians do in line with the Spirit.

It’s probably not completely obvious what I’m getting at, so I’ll ask a question to give you a better idea. When this earth dies in flame and then is recreated and filled with God’s glory, what will happen to this church building? Will it survive the purifying fire? What about your house? Or the White House?

This is a place where we don’t know exactly what to expect, but if we think creatively about what God has revealed about new creation, and the way Christian work will survive or perish, I think we can take a guess at some of this. Perhaps what is made or used for the flesh will be burned up, while what is made or used in the Spirit will make it through. We might find that the casinos have all burned down, but several small country churches where Jesus love’ always had shined through will still be there, looking more beautiful than they could have before. The scars of the Nazi prison camps might be completely eradicated, but a humble home where Christians habitually showed grace to strangers might seem strangely and wonderfully preserved.

And there’s more to think about than buildings. What about art? I find it unlikely that we’ll see that infamous crucifix in a urine jar when the world is remade, but how unlikely would it really be that the paintings of a passionate believer he painted to show God’s creativity will still be around for all to see? And of course it’s plenty likely that music made today which glorifies God will still be played in the new world.

With this all in mind, I think we can look at the world and think of some ways to make the best use of space, time, and matter all for God’s purposes. For some people, this might take the artistic routes of making paintings, sculptures, architecture, music, or poetry inspired by who God is and what He has done. Since we are promised that whatever we do for God’s kingdom through the Spirit will not be in vain, we can do all of this in the physical world without worrying that it will only be temporary.

There are other things to think about, too. If God’s not going to wipe this world off the map for good but instead renew and redeem it, then we need to take more responsibility for it than some people, even Christians, are willing to do. I’m not environmentalist by any stretch, but it would probably be a good idea for us to at least think through the environmental issues we see these days with something besides automatic dismissal. Even I do that a lot, but it’s probably not the proper response of a Christian to damage being done to God’s good creation. Basic care for this planet is a way of recognizing in the here and now the restoration that God is preparing to bring when Jesus returns.

There are obviously lots of other possible applications for recognizing and anticipating the coming resurrection, but I don’t have time to lay them all out here. Hopefully it will suffice to say that the future new creation and the resurrection, if you really think about them, can change the way you see the world, and so also the way you live in this world today. And if we do this, if we try to anticipate God’s final redemption, we might just find a little more grace in our lives now.

Of course, all of this is only relevant to you now if you have the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead in you. Without Jesus and His Spirit, you’ll be left out of the glorious future and end up experiencing the “resurrection to condemnation” mentioned in the Bible, which leads to the lake of fire. You’ll be part of what God removes from the world to redeem it. So if by any chance any of you have not believed in Jesus, now is the time. In Him you can have a good resurrection and new life, both in the future and today.

Brother Bill Is Gay. Now What?

Brother Bill has always been a pretty cool guy. He just celebrated 10 years as a deacon, and taught the youth Sunday school class for the past year after the last teacher moved away. You’ve had dinner at his house many times, and everyone loves his Christmas parties. Just last week he brought his friend to church and his friend repented of his sins and believed in Jesus. So today makes no sense. Today he came out and admitted that he was gay, and plans on pursuing a relationship with someone he met at work. Now you’re all wondering: what do we do?

The recent increased controversy over gay marriage has got me thinking again about what I suspect will be an important issue in the near future for conservative American churches. I specifically don’t include the so-called “mainline” denominations because they went the liberal route of making every essential Christian doctrine optional years ago and have no real opposition to homosexuality in general. Not so for the many evangelical denominations (and non-denominations) in the country. For the most part, we’ve stood against the tide towards accepting gay relationships the whole time.

Brother Bill came out and admitted that he was gay. What do we do?

Now we are slowly facing a new challenge, one that’s accelerating. This challenge is that of Christian progressivism. Unlike the liberalism which barely (if at all) deserves the name “Christian” due to it abandoning historic doctrines like Jesus’ deity, historical resurrection, etc., progressives continue to affirm the core Christian teachings outlined in, for example, the Nicene Creed. Many even affirm the five solas of the Protestant Reformation. But they do make very untraditional moves on social issues, including gay marriage. For the growing Christian progressive movement, there’s nothing wrong with LGBT relationships, and indeed for many progressives these are beautiful things to be protected and cherished.

This brings me back to the story about Brother Bill. With the growth of Christian progressivism, and with the increasing voice progressive bloggers and authors have even in the conservative Christian world, more and more Christians are coming to believe that Scripture does not actually condemn homosexuality. With arguments about the Old Covenant in Leviticus, pagan cult prostitution in Romans 1, and the difficulty of translating arsenokoitai, among others, they persuade many lay Christians beyond sympathy to moral acceptance of gay relationships. The arguments become especially appealing when you, like many people these days, know or have contact with people who are gay and don’t want to condemn them. So for a growing number of apparent believers, what was once a clear cut matter has become at strongest debatable.

Such a movement will likely only increase in steam in the near future, so now those of us in conservative evangelical churches will have to face a new issue: what do we do about people within our churches who think that homosexuality is not a sin, and still believe their position is completely faithful to Scripture? What do we do especially with those who, based on that belief, actually engage in such relationships?

For a growing number of believers, what was once a clear cut matter has become debateable.

Unfortunately, for many of us the first instinct will be to start making judgments about who is saved and who isn’t. They’re wrong on homosexuality? Probably not a real Christian. He’s an activist? Definitely not a real Christian. Honestly, I don’t believe this is within our calling or rights. Scripture records so much sin in the lives of believers, from Abraham’s deceptions to David’s adultery/murder to Peter’s denial, that it is hard to say any sin is outside the realm of a believer to fall. Moreover, justifying and accommodating sin has its own very visible history among God’s people, as seen frequently in the Old Testament, though also in the New. And while Scripture does frequently give us guidelines for discerning false teachers, there are no real rules or commands given to figure out which lay church members are “true” believers.

What then? Are we to ignore sin, perhaps aiding and abetting, and go with some kind of interpretive pluralism or moral relativism where we can’t make any definite statements about right and wrong? Can we make no stand in our churches? As Paul would say, by no means! But what I want to suggest is that we move the “gay issue” from the sphere of individual salvation—who is saved and who isn’t—to the sphere of church membership and discipline, from the sphere of soteriology to ecclesiology.

There are no real rules or commands given in the Bible to figure out which lay church members are “true” believers.

What do I mean? I think instead of trying to figure out who is saved and who isn’t, or what a Christian “can” do or “can’t” do, we should ask instead, “What should the church permit, what should the church discipline, and what should the church excommunicate for?” If we take this approach, instead of thinking, “I think Bill isn’t saved, but I think Jackson is,” then we can simply assume that the people who are in the church match up basically with the people who are saved. How do I think this can work? I’m basing this mostly on Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Thessalonians 3, and some similar passages. So imagine this situation as an example:

You see Brother Dan getting drunk with his co-workers and visiting some less-than-appropriate entertainment. Following Jesus and Paul on this, you talk to him privately about the matter and encourage him to do what is right. Next week, you spot him again. He hasn’t repented, so you take him before another trusted believer, perhaps your pastor or a deacon, and confront him. He has another chance. But he continues his behavior anyway, so you bring him before the entire church and as a church you initiate church discipline, possibly ending with excommunicating him. Once he is removed from the church, you assume that he is not a believer, but hope for his restoration.

“What should the church permit, what should the church discipline, and what should the church excommunicate for?”

This, I believe, is how we ought to handle matters of badly behaving Christians. While we as the church can recognize the ongoing struggle of the Christian with the flesh, we can also recognize and discipline flagrant sin, rebellion, or crossing lines on Christian morality. When people live with their everyday pride and gossip, we might rebuke them as a church but know not to kick them out of fellowship and treat them as an unbeliever. But when people refuse to repent of straight immorality, such as the greed, idolatry, and sexual immorality that Paul often treats like the trio of death, we are commanded to remove the evil person from among us.

So how should we apply this to the current gay debates? First, I don’t think we should bother trying to judge who individually is, in the depths of his heart, a true or false believer. Instead, we look at their church membership initiated in baptism and a confession of faith. Those who are within the church we should treat as fellow believers, and those outside we treat as lost people in need of Jesus. But as a church we must make the following decisions:

  1. Will we discipline (up to and including excommunication) members in gay relationships?
  2. If not, will we allow them in positions of authority? Teaching? Service?
  3. Will we discipline members who are not in gay relationships but believe that such relationships are okay?
  4. If not, will we allow them in positions of authority? Teaching? Service?
  5. Will we discipline members who actively promote and teach that gay relationships are Biblically acceptable?
  6. If not, will we allow them in positions of authority? Teaching? Service?
  7. Will we recognize and/or cooperate with other churches or denominations who disagree on these questions? If so, which ones?

I think the entire debate should take place within these seven questions. On that basis, we can simply assume that people within the church are believers, and assume that people outside are not. Those who refuse to repent of what we have agreed as a church is Biblically prohibited can be disciplined up to and including excommunication if necessary.

Those who are within the church we should treat as fellow believers, and those outside we treat as lost people in need of Jesus.

How would I personally answer these questions? I’m not 100% sure, but I tend to think this: (1) yes, (2) none, (3) no, (4) service only, (5) yes, (6) none, and (7) I don’t know yet. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my overall argument? How would you answer these seven questions? Comment with your thoughts if you don’t mind.

Evangelicals vs. Fundamentalists: What’s the Difference?

Broadly speaking, there are four kinds of people in Protestant Christianity. These are not denominational lines, but apply more broadly, affecting the entire Christian worldview. What are these sections? Liberalism, progressivism, evangelicalism, and fundamentalism. All of these are rather distinct. Liberals tend to deny fundamental tenants of Christian doctrine in favor of a more private and unobtrusive spirituality, with an emphasis on social issues. Progressives tend to hold at least to the basic creeds of Christian belief (one God, Trinity, deity of Jesus, historical death and resurrection of Christ, future resurrection, etc.), but feel free to discard certain traditional teachings usually involving the Old Testament revelation of God, Hell, homosexuality, and abortion, among others (obviously within progressivism there is quite a bit of variety on these matters).

But the divide between evangelicals and fundamentalists is not always as clear-cut, and indeed to most liberals and progressives there is no real difference. Being an evangelical myself, though, I think the issue deserves further clarification. For most people, “fundamentalist” is a pejorative term, which “evangelical” doesn’t always have the same connotations. Moreover, the confusion of the two groups both causes bad association arguments by people both within and without them. 

To further complicate matters, not everyone agrees on the definition of “fundamentalist.” To some people, “fundamentalist” just refers to those who believe the basic tenants of Christianity, which would even include many progressives. To others, a fundamentalist is someone who believes that the Bible is inerrant. To still others, a fundamentalist is anyone more conservative than themselves.

The working definition I will be using here for “fundamentalism” aligns more or less with that used commonly by studied evangelicals. We recognize ourselves as distinct from but in some ways near to fundamentalism, but take many sharp breaks. So I’ll be for my purposes counting fundamentalism as more or less like you would see in an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church, or this fundamentalist website. Evangelicalism will be represented by something more along the lines of where I am, the more average church with which my friends and family would be familiar, or names like John Piper, Michael Patton, Bobby Grow, Francis Chan, David Platt, William Lane Craig, maybe John MacArthur, etc.

So without further ado, here’s how I would differentiate between evangelicals and fundamentalists, using various issues to demonstrate. As always, these rules are pretty general and the lines can be really blurry at times.

  • Evangelicals celebrate Christian liberty; fundamentalists restrict it. Evangelicals are not likely to indiscriminately classify dancing, drinking alcohol, contemporary music, or movies as sinful. Fundamentalists tend to consider all of these and more as unacceptable and compromise with the world.
  • Evangelicals treat secondary doctrines with more charity; fundamentalists treat almost all issues as essential. Evangelicals usually allow for disagreement on questions like election, free will, modes of baptism, eternal security, spiritual gifts, styles of music and church services, etc. Evangelicals are charitable to those who disagree on such issues and will often cooperate with them for the Gospel. Fundamentalists often are quite strict on these matters, setting up stuff like the timing of the Rapture or the rejection of Calvinism as if they could make or break true Christianity.
  • Evangelicals are eager to celebrate many ministries proclaiming Jesus; fundamentalists are suspicious and looking for faults in well-known preachers. A great example of this: most evangelicals appreciate Billy Graham and his son Franklin Graham. Fundamentalists tend to consider them both dangerous compromisers. Evangelicals may like John Piper, Rick Warren, Beth Moore, or Francis Chan, while fundamentalists would be afraid of them all.
  • Evangelicals are generally more open to other Christian traditions; fundamentalists accept only a small minority. While not all evangelicals agree on all the boundaries, as a general rule evangelicals are more likely to consider people across certain major denominational lines like Catholics, Orthodox, or Lutheran as true brothers in Christ. Fundamentalists decry them all, and none more than the Catholics who they regard as the worst offenders of false gospel.
  • Evangelicals believe in God’s wrath; fundamentalists obsess over it. Evangelicals do believe that God has wrath and in hellfire for the unrepentant, but that is not the focal point of their theology. Usually, God’s love and grace are given a bigger spotlight as they deserve. Fundamentalists get really pumped from preaching God’s wrath and putting sinners under judgment. They act like Hell is the center of the Gospel: it looms, Jesus gets you out of it, so tell everyone else to avoid it.
  • Evangelicals allow for different opinions on creation; fundamentalists treat a young earth as core to the faith. Many evangelicals believe in a young earth, but many also believe in an old earth, or that God used evolution as His tool in creation, and even when they strongly disagree with each other they accept each other as brothers in Christ and cooperate in ministry with grace. Fundamentalists warn that anything other than a young earth belief is liberal compromise with atheists, and undermines the Bible’s authority, and sometimes even that it sends people to Hell.
  • Evangelicals freely use whatever translation suits their devotional life and ministry; fundamentalists usually only use the KJV. While evangelicals recognize that God’s word is best heard in whatever makes His voice clearest, and so are willing to use the HCSB, ESV, NIV, or NLT with few qualms, fundamentalists don’t trust newer versions and are usually unwilling to go further than the NKJV. Not all of them say the KJV is God’s only word (though many do), but if nothing else there’s usually a very strong preference.
  • Evangelicals believe in culturally appropriate modesty; most fundamentalists tend to straight-jacket attire into very specific and arbitrary forms. Everyone knows that evangelicals care about modesty, and of course it’s a controversial issue even among us. But fundamentalists are often not willing to even participate in this kind of discourse. Many of them are in the “women can’t wear pants” crew, or would balk at girls wearing anything without complete sleeves. They do not see rationally on how culture, modesty, lust, and practicality intersect because of traditions of men.
  • Evangelicals want to help improve the fallen state of the world; fundamentalists are content to condemn people and wait in their pews for the end. Evangelicals are willing to preach that we should help share life and grace in the world not just by witnessing, but also by projects which meet people’s physical, mental, or emotional needs. Food pantries, crisis pregnancy centers, orphanages, and other social projects actually have evangelical volunteers. Fundamentalists tend to simply complain about the state of things and sigh while they wait for Jesus to show up. Some of them even say we shouldn’t bother with these matters when we could be soul-winning.
  • Evangelicals try to win the world to Christ; fundamentalists just talk about soul-winning. In the evangelical world, people actually try to use whatever means they can to show people the life available in Jesus. They, like Paul, are willing to “become all things to all people” to save some. But fundamentalists tend to preach about evangelism, but instead of actually trying to win people they tend to do whatever it takes to repel and disgust them. They’ll witness about grace without using any, or talk about a Jesus no one wants to follow.

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.