Two Thoughts from 1 Corinthians

I was reading 1 Corinthians 1-2 this morning and ran across a couple of passages that really stuck out to me. They speak fairly well for themselves (isn’t Scripture good about that?), but I will highlight the basic thoughts in them that I found so compelling.

The first passage is 1 Corinthians 1:17-31. But¬†I won’t quote all of that here, which would be rather long. So I’ll just present the heart of it.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. For it is written:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will set aside the understanding of the experts.

Where is the philosopher? Where is the scholar? Where is the debater of this age? Hasn’t God made the world’s wisdom foolish? For since, in God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of the message preached. For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

From the beginning, the Gospel has appeared foolish or even blasphemous to the rest of the world. The Jews thought it absolutely unacceptable that their Messiah would suffer crucifixion, much more so in the impossible situation of Him being God Incarnate. The Greeks, well, just thought the whole story was kind of dumb. But today it is little different. Christ crucified is a stumbling block to those who are all about success and self-advancement (*cough*Trump*cough*), a group increasingly large in our increasingly corporate world.¬†The idea that a man who lived 2000 years ago spoke truths which carry divine authority even today is ridiculous to self-styled intellectuals. The claim that there is only one name given under heaven by which men may be saved sounds like blasphemy to a culture all about inclusion and multiculturalism. All of the Gospel, if¬†you’re not just too used to it to noticed, sounds completely insane¬†apart from the experience of its power. This is just something I keep noticing all of the time¬†in relation to so many philosophies and politics and worldviews. Democrat or Republican, atheist or theist, rich or poor, Jesus sounds ridiculous¬†and¬†contradictory to all of the cultural defaults.

The other passage I notice is at the end of 1 Corinthians 2. People often get the meaning of verse 9 wrong. What do I mean?

But as it is written:

What eye did not see and ear did not hear, and what never entered the human mind ‚ÄĒ God prepared this for those who love Him.

Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God. We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. For

who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct Him?

But we have the mind of Christ. 

1 Corinthians 2:9-16

This passage comes¬†right after Paul’s further argument about human vs. divine wisdom, and the power of the Spirit over and against the persuasive power of rhetoric. Verse 9 is often treated as a statement about the unimaginability of heaven. No eye or hear or head has a clue what’s coming! But that’s exactly¬†not the point Paul is making. He’s making¬†a point about the divine wisdom of the Gospel and its foolishness to men. This verse shows that no one was ever expecting what God did in¬†Christ for us. God’s plans for us in the Gospel had never been seen before, heard before, or imagined by a human mind. If they had, as per verse 8, no one would have killed Jesus. But instead, Paul goes on to argue that even though this stuff was hidden before,¬†we now know it. We have the Spirit of God, who is the¬†only one to know the deep secrets of God. Because we have the Spirit, we know the secrets of the Gospel, not because we had seen or heard or known before, but because we have been taught the truths of the Spirit. We now have the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit, which means that we are those who know the Lord’s mind and understand what God has prepared for us. We know by revelation. There is nothing hidden anymore.

The Father Loves Baby Steps

As Christians, we will always, until our resurrection and glorification, still be growing up.¬†We have been born again, and after every birth one remains an infant for quite some time. The thing about the new birth is that, being a reality of the Holy Spirit acting upon¬†our minds and hearts, it doesn’t always lead to the same obvious, consistent growth that our¬†first, bodily births do.¬†It’s mixed and splotchy and inconsistent, not because of any fault on God’s part but because of our sinful absurdity.¬†

Despite our ridiculousness, our heavenly Father is good, loving, and patient with us. We have been adopted by grace alone, regardless of the sins which beset us, and because we stand by this grace in Jesus Christ, we are perpetually accepted before God. This means that He stands ready and waiting to encourage and accept our every move along His way, while simultaneously ready and waiting to forgive all our stops and tantrums along the way when we stop and confess them to Him.

This¬†fact of grace has¬†been something encouraging to me as of late while doing my personal evangelism class at BCF. I know quite well that I am¬†sinfully and woefully inadequate when it comes to sharing my faith with other people (primarily because I am sinfully and woefully inadequate¬†when it comes to conversing with other people). I have made little progress,¬†but I have made some. I was able to share my testimony recently. It wasn’t very hard in the particular case, though I¬†had expected it to be more difficult. This was nothing, especially in comparison to other, more mature Christians, or in comparison to Christ Himself.

Despite my slow and crawling progress, God is gracious. Having adopted me for Himself, He is not cruel to and ready to punish me, but a happy Father who loves His new son. He accepts and rejoiced over my baby steps without for a moment compromising His demands for perfect obedience. He is a kind Father, and He loves me more even than I love my own son.

So remember this in all your faltering obedience. Never deny and forget that you are still a sinner and imperfect and even rebellious, but likewise never forget that God loves your baby steps towards Him.

A Quick Thought from Russell Moore: Something to Remember about People

Here’s something worth keeping in mind from Russell Moore’s new book,¬†Onward:

The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. That‚Äôs a sentence I remind myself of almost every day, every time I feel myself growing discouraged about the future…That‚Äôs what the elderly theologian taught me, as I stood there and wrung my hands over the pragmatism, the hucksterism, the liberalizing tendencies I saw in the Christianity around me, and wondered, ‚ÄúDoes gospel Christianity have a future in this country at all?‚ÄĚ He looked at me as though I were crazy. Of course gospel Christianity had, and has, a future. But the gospel Christians who will lead it may well still be pagans. He was right. Christianity is not like politics, rife with the dynasties of ruling families. God builds his church a different way.

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic right now. The next Mother Teresa might be a heroin-addicted porn star right now. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.

But the Spirit of God can turn all that around, and seems to delight to do so. The new birth doesn‚Äôt just transform lives, creating repentance and faith; it also provides new leadership to the church, and fulfills Jesus‚Äô promise to gift his church with everything needed for her onward march through space and time (Eph. 4:8‚Äď16).

Remember this next time you have a problem with anyone, and next time you fear for the future of Christianity.

How Jesus the Messiah Conquered Rome

It is no secret that one of the major reasons Jesus got crucified is because He wouldn’t do the #1 thing that the Jews were expecting their Messiah to do: overthrow¬†Israel’s Roman oppressors.¬†Time and again they sought this of Him, but He refused to align Himself with not only any existing revolutionary movements¬†but even any revolutionary sentiments.¬†This¬†certainly¬†would have seemed to some of them as a dead giveaway that He couldn’t be the Messiah, for everyone knew that¬†the Messiah’s most important job would be to¬†topple pagan empire.

Of course, any doubts as to Jesus’ qualifications as Messiah had to be laid to rest when He was raised by God from the dead and therefore publicly vindicated.¬†By no means could this happen if He was not who He claimed to be. So it would seem to be that the requirement to overthrow Israel’s enemies, especially Rome, was not actually necessary for His Messianic role.

Or was it?

The truth is that, although¬†He redefined every element of that story in doing it, Jesus did in fact conquer His people’s pagan oppressors. When all the dust settled, the Lord Jesus stood victorious over Lord Caesar. What precisely do I mean by this?

The Jews expected from their Messiah a quick military conquest rescuing the nation of Israel from Roman rule. Jesus did not fulfill these expectations at all, but He nonetheless won the Messianic victory they were looking for. This victory was prophesied in Revelation, in which the Kingdom of Christ overcomes the kingdom of the beast, which (at least in the original instance) is Rome. This was fulfilled by reorienting each component of the Jewish expectation.

The very first reorientation was the nature of Israel itself. The ethnic Israel alive at that time was not suitable to be Kingdom people, for they were natural and fleshly. They had only a heart of stone, a word written on tablets, and needed a heart of flesh, the Word made flesh. They were bound to their natural lusts and needed the freedom of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus formed Israel anew around Himself. He made a new, reborn Israel beginning with Himself and His resurrection and expanding to the Apostles and their hearers, and He baptized them into the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. This people, the Israel of God reborn in Christ, would be the one to stand victorious over Rome, not the original, dying, fleshly Israel cursed by the Law. Jerusalem fell, but so did Rome, and only the Church of these three remained.

Following this¬†change was a change in the means of conquest. The Jews expected the Messiah’s conquest to be¬†a military victory, in which by God’s power He would lead a new Israelite army like those of old to¬†march on Rome with weapons of war.¬†Jesus won, however, in a different way. His army¬†did not win by killing, but by being killed as martyrs. They did not fight with swords of steel, but with the sword of the Spirit, which is the¬†Gospel. By the power of the Spirit¬†this unconventional warfare¬†slowly overturned the¬†forces which sought to crush Christ and His people. Millions of Romans found themselves crucified with Christ and then raised to newness of life through the proclamation of¬†His Word.

Naturally, such a radically different conquest did not take place publicly in the short span of time which the Jews had anticipated, but rather worked slowly and secretly. Like a mustard seed, the Kingdom of Christ grew as person after person was baptized into a new allegiance which trumped their allegiance to Rome. It took hundreds of years, but eventually the rule of the beast fell to ruin while the rule of God continued to advance, and indeed still advances. The empire which crucified Jesus in the first century came to be ruled by His Church (albeit in a very imperfect way) in the fourth and fell to only a memory behind it in the sixth. Today, the Roman Empire is of but historical interest, whereas the Kingdom of God continues to march and claim a massive citizenry.

In the end, then, Christ did conquer Rome. That famous empire eventually submitted itself to His Church, and finally died while the Church lived on. Granted, the Church ran into problems of its own in both of these scenarios, but it lives on, unlike Rome, and the Gospel of Christ continues to be a powerful weapon conquering peoples of every tribe, tongue, and nation.

But what does it matter to notice this? Why should we care that, technically speaking, Jesus did defeat Rome? Two things come to mind. On the one hand, it is a reminder that no world system, political or cultural,¬†will last forever, but God and His Kingdom in Christ will.¬†His reign will never end. No matter what any government, military, or¬†institutions throw at us, God reigns¬†and will not be defeated. Rome proved it. Our currently immoral, broken, and failing American culture, for example,¬†is no worse than Rome’s was, but in the long run its vices will perish while the will of God stands.

As another point, I think this conquest of the Roman Empire by Christ is actually a useful concept in Biblical interpretation, because I believe that it is a major prophetic focus in Revelation, and possibly even in the letters of Paul. If you understand the kingdom of the beast and Babylon the Great Whore as Rome, which is highly supported by both the text itself and the historical/cultural context of Revelation, then seeing this conquest is helpful in following along the point of the book, which to some extent parallels the point made above.

So remember: Jesus is Lord, and He wins every time. He even toppled the Roman Empire.

Love the Trumpers, Hate the Trump

(Before I say anything, I just want to point that I would never actually condone hating anyone, Donald Trump included, even usually in jest. But it was the best title idea I had.)

I believe that Donald Trump is an awful person, doesn’t know what he would really be doing in the White House,¬†and has no business being President of the United States. I do not believe it would be appropriate to vote for him, especially as a conservative Christian, to whom the competence¬†and character¬†of our leaders should matter. (As John Adams said of the White House, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” Donald Trump is neither one.)

Nonetheless, I am not happy with the way many people treat and speak of Trump supporters, who make up¬†a third of all Republicans, not to mention more-than-insignificant portions of other groups. There are a lot of people out there who want to vote for Mr. Trump, and I think the whole “these people are the scum of the earth/what’s wrong with America” mentality is arrogant and uncharitable.¬†Assessments of their motives and feelings like¬†that of Rachel Held Evans¬†strike me as fundamentally misguided and overly judgmental. Are we really to believe the reason so¬†many¬†people support Trump is that they¬†just want to be easy winners who abandon the downtrodden instead of bearing the Cross with the least of these?

What so many people seem to be forgetting is that, even though Trump is obviously a one-percenter, his supporters are mostly not. They are not the privileged (despite the fact that they’re mostly white), they are not the well-off, but they themselves are in fact the poor, needy, and oppressed. Trump’s supporters are mostly¬†white working class people, not the most destitute on earth but neither quite the comfortable middle class. They’re generally ignored or maligned by¬†the socially acceptable, progressive, upper middle class, as well as the donor class which power the government, and the non-white lower classes to boot. They have no friends or allies in politics, media, or the respected blogosphere. People dismiss them as privileged, racist, and bigoted (and certainly at least¬†some of them are), and feel justified in giving them no voice or sympathy.

Many people have already written more and better on this than I can. Rod Dreher, for example, has shared an enlightening letter from a Trump supporter¬†and an interesting article about¬†why Trump¬†matters to his main constituency. Similar articles abound, though I can’t find some of the¬†other good links I was looking for. I recommend you reading and contemplating them if Trumpmania confuses or interests you.

The plights of people who support Donald Trump are real, and I want to make this point in direct opposition to people like Evans (above) or the media folks who just “can’t even” at his supporters. Most of these people love to preach tolerance, inclusion, and doing good to the least of these. Even when people as a group tend to statistically¬†share certain negative characteristics, a root cause is sought out with¬†empathy and slowness to judge. Except for people like Trump supporters.¬†No charity is extended to them.¬†Despite the struggles, poverty, and frustration of the white working class, they are simply scolded for their vulgarity, racism, and bigotry (whether real or imagined for each) and told to join in the progressive love-fest for all of the other suffering people out there.

My challenge is for people to take the progressive rhetoric seriously. Do you want to reach out to the poor, the neglected, and the disenfranchised? Is that essential to your Gospel? Then, however you feel about Donald Trump himself, be kind to his supporters. They’re real, normal people with concerns and aggravations that Trump is willing and unafraid to address. Do you find Trump’s¬†deport-them-all ideas racist? (I find them mostly¬†absurd.)¬†Instead of judging¬†his supporters as such, try empathizing with the frustration of rural Jim Bob whose son can’t get a job doing farm work because it’s cheaper¬†to hire Jos√© who snuck into the country. Trump speaks to Jim’s¬†struggle, so ponder the solution rather than condemn him.

Basically, feel free to oppose Donald Trump. But if you hate the Trump, don’t forget to love the Trumpers. (Though if you have a stable friendship or family relationship with one, by all means feel free to [gently] rebuke¬†him.)

Karl and Me: What Life is Like as a Theologian

One of my favorite books, which I discovered last year, is¬†Evangelical Theology: An Introduction by Karl Barth (pronounced “Bart,” by the way). I got the book because I expected it to be an introduction to the theology of Barth, which is altogether interesting.¬†That’s not what it was, as I found out, but I suppose that what it turned out to be was far better.¬†Evangelical Theology is not so much a book of theology but a book about theology, specifically about the nature and doing¬†of theology. It’s an introduction not to specific theological ideas, but to the project of theology itself.

I found this to be surprisingly refreshing. While I would like to (and at some point maybe will) cover a great deal of what this book has to say, I want to write briefly today about the second major section of the book, which is about “theological existence” (life as a theologian). Barth breaks down each major topic with four simple terms, and this one is possibly my favorite. What¬†does it mean to be a theologian? What is it like? What should it be like? These are the questions Barth addresses in these four chapters.

In these chapters, Barth characterizes the theologian using four words, four traits. All I’ll really do in this post is give a summary of his presentation on these elements and explain how I can identify with them. So here are Barth’s four¬†characterizing elements of theological life (and before I get into these, I should briefly note that Barth sees every Christian as at least something of a theologian):

  1. Wonder: To Barth, the first driving characteristic of the theologian is wonder. The theologian encounters the God of the Gospel, finds himself addressed by the Divine Word, and can only be astonished and amazed in return. He learns of God and finds that every new discovery is one more compelling. He is driven back again and again to see this wonder who is the God revealed in Christ.
  2. Concern: The next characteristic of the theologian for Barth is concern. The theologian is preeminently concerned with what he finds in his theological studies about the God of the Gospel and His ways and acts. They press on his mind day after day, questions and potential answers, and impose themselves upon every experience. He cannot escape constant concern for divine truth, no matter what is going on around him.
  3. Commitment:¬†Barth also makes the point that the theologian is fundamentally committed to God and His Gospel, to the theological work of understanding through questions and answers. He yields his thoughts to God alone, and refuses to back down or give up from the fight to know¬†divine truth. Most importantly, He¬†seeks to¬†know this truth on the basis of God’s personal revelation of Himself in Christ¬†alone.
  4. Faith: Finally, and rather¬†naturally, Barth points out the role of faith for the theologian. Faith for Barth is not just a¬†leap into the dark. It’s not¬†following the evidence, and then going one extra step. It’s neither blind fancy, nor the result of reason, not an existential decision. For Barth, faith is what happens when God shows up¬†and encounters us personally in Jesus Christ through the Spirit, calling us and freeing us to become¬†for Him¬†and trust Him¬†in this new opportunity. Faith consists constantly in this living in the God-created freedom to follow whatever He reveals of Himself in Christ. This is the rule of faith for all theology, and for every theologian, in Barth’s conception.

If it isn’t obvious, I can identify with these characteristics like nobody’s business.¬†His chapter on concern in particular resonates with me deeply. Nothing I see or hear or experience can escape the¬†wrath of theological concern¬†in my mind. Truly, Barth’s description¬†is my life.

If none of this makes sense to you, then I suppose you’re not¬†a theologian. But if you are, you should see just how right and true this is. I plan to post more on this topic, and hopefully it will be beneficial to someone.

Heaven Is a Myth. Kind Of.

“So now he’s saying heaven is a myth. What has gotten into Caleb’s brain today?” This is may be something like¬†the reaction you had to the title of this post. And that’s probably justified. I’ve already pulled pretty well the same stunt with I Don’t Believe in Hell a while back. It’s just that heaven and hell are such deliciously popular topics that¬†such titles always attract attention.

Anyway, what am I actually saying this time? Well,¬†first off I’m certainly not saying that there is no such thing as heaven. That would be Biblically absurd.¬†When I say “heaven is a myth” I mean specifically the popular conceptions of heaven that dominate books and movies, whether Christian or not. There is certainly a real heaven, but¬†it’s not what most people imagine it is, and that is the message I mean to get across in this post.

Define “Heaven”, Please

What’s wrong with the common perceptions of heaven? Part of the problem is the lack of precision. People use the word “heaven” to refer to God’s presence, the place believers go after death, and the future state elaborated in Revelation 21-22. Because¬†many Christians use the same word for all of these places, the differences get muddled to create a strange, murky, and unbiblical mix. My goal here is to distinguish between the different things¬†and clarify¬†the Biblical vision¬†of heaven.

First off, the word “heaven” itself in the Bible is never used for where people go when they die, nor does it ever refer¬†to the new creation after Jesus returns. It is used primarily in three ways (note that I’m only referencing the New Testament to make things easier for me, but what I say can also be seen in the Old):

  • “Heaven” can refer to the sky and/or space, e.g. Matt. 3:16, 16:2, Mk. 7:34, Lk. 9:16, Acts 11:6, Jas. 5:18
  • “Heaven” can¬†be used as a substitute for “God.” This is clearly seen in Matthew. Everywhere the other gospels say “kingdom of God” Matthew uses “kingdom of heaven.”¬†
  • Finally, “heaven” can refer to the place where God and His angels are, e.g. Matt. 5:16, 22:30, Mk. 11:26, John 1:51, Acts 7:55.

Search the Scriptures and see for yourself: never is¬†the word “heaven” used in relation to where a human is, with precisely two exceptions. The first is that of Jesus, who is exalted in heaven at the right hand of God and intercedes for us there.¬†The only other exception is Paul in a vision being caught up to the third heaven.¬†But these exceptions prove the rule. Heaven is never mentioned as the destiny of the dead righteous.

There is a word used in Scripture for the place where the dead righteous are. This word is “paradise.” Jesus Himself used it to the thief on the cross, and it is¬†one of two direct names for the place where¬†dead believers are. The other reference is “Abraham’s bosom” in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. These two references to the dwelling of dead believers are the only ones which name the place, and neither uses the word “heaven.”

Is it semantics I’m playing here? Not merely. What we must learn to make sense of the Biblical teachings on heaven is to distinguish between the three places associated with our concept of heaven. I’ll give a basic overview of each here, and later I’ll give details on the Biblical case for each.

The Three Things People Like to Call “Heaven”

First,¬†heaven is the space God created alongside “earth.” Our¬†visible world is parallel to the world of heaven, and both were created by God in the beginning. Heaven is flooded with the glory and presence of God, and His will is always carried out there. Angels also dwell there. This world is not¬†the purely spiritual presence of God, but a created space with its own created order which parallels ours.¬†Heaven and earth are distinct, but together. They are separate, but right beside each other. They occasionally intersect and¬†get messily involved with each other. God reigns in this heaven,¬†Jesus’ physical human body is currently present there, and angels go to and fro between there and here to accomplish God’s purposes.

Next,¬†paradise is where believers are after death. It is not equal to heaven, but is something else. For believers, it is a place of rest and comfort until the last day when we are to be resurrected. This is not likely to¬†be a physical or material place, because it is neither in heaven nor earth and the people who dwell there¬†are without bodies for the time being. It is a truly immaterial existence, without sight, touch, smell, or sound. There are no mansions, streets of gold, or anything which can be physically sensed there.¬†Paradise has bliss for the righteous, a bliss¬†that results from God’s caring embrace by the Spirit, but there is still a degree of discomfort because they are “naked” and¬†lack their bodies. This place is ultimately temporary, an immaterial existence which will no longer be relevant in the resurrection.

Finally,¬†the¬†new creation¬†(also called the new heavens and earth) is where believers are destined to live in eternity. This is a physical world birthed out of our current one, a recreation. Just like the Spirit radically healed and transformed us at our new birth to make us a new creation, so will He do to the entire world in the last day. Just like Jesus’ dead body was restored to life and made altogether fresh and new, so will the entire cosmos die in flame and be restored to a new and fuller glory in Christ. This will still be our physical universe, but fixed, renewed, and brought to its true destined purity.¬†

Obviously, by this point I’ve said a lot that you may not have heard before, and very well may prove controversial. So be it. But alas, I’m nearing a thousand words here, so it’s not the time to go on. I’ll continue this series. In my next post, I’ll start defending and building with Scripture¬†what I’ve said about these three places. In the mean time, try reading the Bible with¬†these thoughts in mind and see if it makes sense. You may be surprised.

Why Did Jesus Come “In the Flesh?”

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

This past Sunday I received the opportunity to preach, which I haven’t done in some time. I greatly enjoyed it, and¬†thank God that¬†my message was well-received. In my preparations, I¬†wrote a manuscript, and I decided I would upload that as a post. It’s long, mind you, since it’s an entire sermon, but I hope someone can be blessed by it.

Why “In the Flesh?”

Tonight I’ll be starting in 2 John 1:7. I won’t be spending much time there, but I’m using this verse to bring up a particular question. After that, don’t worry, I’ll still be using the Bible, but will focus on a couple other passages to answer that question. So let’s look at it.

“Many deceivers have gone out into the world; they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

There’s another verse, 1 John 4:2, which likewise says “Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”

So here’s what I would like to ask. This is question of the entire message. Why is it so important that Jesus came “in the flesh?” Why is this such a big deal that John commands in 2 John 1:9-10 not even to greet or welcome someone teaching otherwise?

Most of you have probably never wondered this, just taking it as a given that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man. You probably take his flesh for granted. If someone disagrees, though you’d seriously condemn their error I doubt you would be able to explain why this is so important, except for “That’s what the Bible says.”

My goal in this sermon is to fix that. I want to, straight from the Bible, answer why it is so vital that Jesus came “in the flesh,” both for our beliefs and for our practical lives.

But before I get into all this, I should quickly explain what “in the flesh” means. When John uses the word “flesh,” he definitely doesn’t mean it at all the way Paul usually does. For Paul, “flesh” usually refers to the sinful and corrupt aspect of human existence. The “flesh” is the part of human life that causes the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21, which include stuff like sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, ambition, arguments, envy, and promiscuity. This obviously isn’t equal to “the body,” because for example hatred is not something you do with your body but your heart.

When John says Jesus came “in the flesh,” he is saying that Jesus came in a real, physical, human nature with a tangible body. He could be seen, heard, and touched like he said in 1 John 1, and His body wasn’t an illusion or mask like some people were teaching at the time. This is the doctrine of Incarnation. Incarnation means that God become a human being in Jesus Christ. So again, why does it matter so much? Why is it so important that Jesus came in a real human body?

As a good Baptist, I want to address this with three points. The first is why Jesus coming in the flesh is necessary for salvation, and it might not be just the reason you immediately think. The second is why Jesus had to come in the flesh to do anything at all meaningful for us, people who live in flesh. Finally, the third is what practical implications Jesus’ coming in the flesh has for us now.

Flesh and Salvation

So onto the first point. What does Christ coming in the flesh, in real human nature and body, do for our salvation? How did God becoming a baby who needed diapers changed work towards our rescue from sin and death? The first obvious answer is that He came so He could die on the cross. That is part of the answer. But there is more to it. To answer this first question, then, I’ll use Hebrews 2:5-18. If you all want to turn there, I’ll be in it for several minutes. In this passage, the author of Hebrews has just been speaking of how and why Jesus is superior to the angels, due to His divine nature as the Son of God. But at this point he moves into Jesus’ humanity. Even as a human, He an exalted place over the angels. Here’s what it says:

And furthermore, it is not angels who will control the future world we are talking about. For in one place the Scriptures say,

“What are people that you should think of them, or a son of man that you should care for him? Yet you made them only a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You gave them authority over all things.”

Now when it says “all things,” it means nothing is left out. But we have not yet seen all things put under their authority. What we do see is Jesus, who was given a position “a little lower than the angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.” Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone.

God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation. So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.

For he said to God, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people.” He also said, “I will put my trust in him,” that is, “I and the children God has given me.”

Because God’s children are human beings‚ÄĒmade of flesh and blood‚ÄĒthe Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

This text is, in my opinion, probably the most important text about Jesus’ Incarnation, which, remember, means His coming in human flesh. So I want to go through it and draw out the logic it uses to explain why Jesus’ flesh is so vital to our salvation. But before I get too far, I should point out potential translation confusion. In some Bible versions like the one I’m using, verses 5-8 speak in the plural of “them” or “human beings” or “people”, while many others speak in the singular, saying “him” and “the son of man.” Here the literal words are singular, but they are speaking in a collective sense. The human race is being represented by a singular “man” or “him.” Even the phrase “son of man” in this verse only means a child of humankind, not specifically Jesus.

So here’s the flow of the passage. In seeking to show Jesus’ superiority to the angels on the side of his human nature, the author quotes Psalm 8, where the psalmist is baffled at the dignity God has given the human race even though we are so puny and less beautiful than His other works. He asks how mere men can be important enough to warrant God’s care or attention.

Then he celebrates the high place God has given humanity. He set us up only a little less than the angels for a while, and He gave us glory and honor. He put us in charge of the whole world like we see in Genesis 1:28-30. How could we deserve this? We’re so small.

But what the author of Hebrews points out is that not everything seems to be in our control even though God gave it all to us. There is suffering, sin, and death wreaking havoc on our world. So what’s wrong? Have we completely lost the high position given to us by God?

The answer is kind of like Paul’s “By no means!” See, even though we don’t see humanity in control of the world God gave us, we do see Jesus. He became a human like us in the flesh, and was made lower than the angels for a while. The rest of us may not be in control of the world God gave us, since we were under Satan’s rule, but Jesus was crowned Lord and is forever exalted. He is reigning in glory and honor. But how did He get there? He died for us all, all of the weak humanity. Because He obeyed the Father even to the point of death, He has been crowned king of everything, which means that He has regained control of creation for us all. A human being is on the thone of the world standing in for God, just like God originally intended.

So at this point the author of Hebrews goes a little further in what Jesus did to restore us to this place. He says that it only fitting that God should make Jesus, the source of our salvation, perfect through suffering. Now this doesn’t mean Jesus was sinful and then became perfect, obviously. He says elsewhere in Hebrews that Jesus was without sin. In this case perfect means mature or complete. Jesus wasn’t completely in place to restore fallen people until He Himself had endured the same sufferings that we do, and He had to learn the experience of rejecting sin and living in faith. He became a man, one of us, and had to live by faith like one of us and deal with what we deal with. The only way to heal man’s problems was for the Creator and Sustainer of all life to become a man Himself and fight them back.

Finally, this text tells us that Jesus as a human being had to share our fleshy nature to become our High Priest. A priest stands before God in place of his people, and offers God the sacrifice required. So only a man of flesh-and-blood can represent us, flesh-and-blood people. He had to be like us in every way to minister to the Father on our behalf. For us to be near to God, we need a pure human priest to lead the way. This is the same point behind Paul specifying in 1 Timothy 2:5 that there is only one Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ. So in last‚ÄĒbut not least!‚ÄĒplace, Jesus had to become a human being to be our High Priest before God, a work essential to our salvation which continues forever. In fact, this is the key reason we know that Jesus is still human, though that’s definitely a topic for another day.

Anyway, to recap, this is why Jesus became flesh and blood for our salvation. We were supposed to be the rulers of God’s creation, but when we sinned we became subject to death. And when we became subject to death, Satan–who wields death as his power–became a ruler over us. So when Jesus became one of us, when He came in our dying flesh, He started fighting back. He cast out demons and went to war against Satan’s kingdom. He forgave sins and removed Satan’s ground for accusing us before God. Finally, He died. It looked like Satan had beaten Jesus, beaten God, with his weapon of death, but then Jesus rose from the dead. Now Satan has nothing left. No sickness, sin, or death can defeat the Christ who healed, forgave, and rose again. So Jesus, having ascended to heaven, stands now in glory and honor, the conquering human King who has won back humanity’s God-given place as the rulers of this world and defeated Satan who stole that place, and our eternal High Priest representing and substituting for us all in God’s presence.

At this point, we see just how important Jesus’ human flesh was to our salvation. If Jesus had no human body, then none of this chain would have worked. There would be no truly human person to represent and substitute on our behalf, healing sickness, forgiving sin, and beating bodily death. No human being would take the throne of creation to restore humanity to their proper place in the world. Satan would still hold the power of death, since without a physical body Christ could have no physical resurrection to remove the sting of physical death. Jesus had to be like us in every way if He was to suffer for us, forgive us, and empathize with us a High Priest before the Father. And without His flesh, He could do not a single one of these things. We’d still be doomed.

Flesh and Human Existence

This brings me to my next point. A creative and curious person could ask, “Why did Christ need a body for all this? Couldn’t He have accomplished all these things in a spiritual way without coming in the flesh?” And of course, when dealing with God, the answer would have to be “Sure He could.” But, to do that He would have had to make us simply spiritual beings without physical bodies. Or He could have made us with bodies that don’t matter, with only the spirit counting for anything, like the ancient Gnostics believed. But that’s not how He chose to create us. He already had the angels who were purely spirit. When God chose to create man, He chose to create a kind of person with a real, physical nature. He made people defined by having bodies.

Some of you may think this is strange. After all, don’t we believe, to supposedly quote C. S. Lewis, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body?” Well, no, and Lewis never said this, either. The truth is that God made us equally body and soul, physical and spiritual. The entire Bible shows the importance of this, starting with creation. When God created mankind, He made them from the dust of the earth first, and only then added spiritual life. The physical was an integral part. Then He blessed the first humans in a physical way, giving them rule over the physical world and telling to make babies. He created mankind in His own image, and this actually means something very physical which most people don’t realize.

See, in the ancient cultures surrounding early Israel, a six day building project would represent the construction of a temple to a god. At the end of the six days, an image of the god would be placed in the temple to represent its presence and authority. An visible, material idol was placed there to stand in for the invisible, immaterial deity. So in Genesis 1 we can see that same concept being used by Moses under the inspiration of the Spirit to show all creation as the massive and glorious temple of the one true God. At the end of the construction, He places an image in the temple to carry out His authority on the earth. Just like the idols of the other ancient temples, in this case a physical image–humanity–is created specifically to exercise His authority and care in creation. So even part of what defines our being made in the image of God is precisely the fact that we are physical!

The theme of man’s physical existence goes on and on from that point. In the Law, God chose to set Israel apart by all sorts of physical signs that affected their day to day bodily life. He wanted to them even conform their flesh to His purposes, as proved by food laws, purity and cleanliness laws, laws about property and land, and even laws about going to the bathroom! The primary sign of His covenant was the intimate and very physical cut of circumcision. All through the Law is this theme: God cares about the physical aspect of being human, and even that part is essential to being who He made us to be.

The pattern continues explicitly in the New Testament, for example in Paul’s teaching on sexual immorality. He strongly condemns all fornication, adultery, prostitution, etc because why? Because the body is irrelevant to our life? By no means! He says that the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. According to Paul our flesh counts a lot.

This all culminates in the Christian hope of resurrection. This is the final hope of Christianity as opposed to others. Unlike the Buddhists and Hindus, today’s New Age spiritualities, the Platonists and Gnostics of yesteryear, we do not hope to escape the body to spend eternity in some pure spiritual existence, but God has promised us the resurrection of our bodies, the transformation of corruptible flesh to incorruptible, mortal bodies to immortal ones. He proved this when He raised Jesus from the dead in a body that is still solid to the touch and capable even of eating. And if this resurrection is so important and lies behind our future resurrection, then clearly our bodies matter so much that they were included in God’s salvation for us..

This means Jesus had to become flesh. If Jesus didn’t become flesh, then we poor humans who God designed in such a fleshy way would be hopeless. When bodies are in trouble, what can they gain from pure spirit? It would be all over our heads and irrelevant to this bodily life God created for us. At best we could only be half saved, with our souls rescued and our bodies abandoned, leaving us incomplete for eternity. So Hebrews is right. Since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus had to become like His brothers in every way. He had to save bodies, not just souls.

Flesh and Loving Thy Neighbor

But this brings me to my third point. We should rejoice that God Himself, the Creator of all who is who He is and dwells in heaven, loved us so much that He was willing to become a real, fleshy human being to save us. I mean, it’s ridiculous when you really think about it. This glorious and unfathomable God became a helpless baby. He cried for food. He pooped and needed diaper changes. He got confused and scared when His mommy left the room. He tumbled around learning to walk. He made silly sound while learning to talk. He did chores, got hot, got cold, got hungry, and experienced hardship. In fact, since Joseph kind of disappears from the Bible by Jesus’ adulthood and on the cross Jesus gave care of Mary to John, Joseph probably died. If so Jesus suffered the pain of losing His stepfather. He grew up and went through puberty, probably getting embarrassing acne and for all we know maybe even crushing on some pretty Jewish girl. He learned to be a handyman and worked with tools in the hot sun to make a living. Then He got baptized, a sign of repenting from sin, in front of a bunch of people even though He was sinless. He gave up food for 40 whole days, being tempted by His growling stomach to cheat and poof up something to eat. From that point on He spent over three years meeting people of all kinds, with every disease and injury known to man, to have mercy on them. He witnessed bruised and broken bodies, disgusting to sight and smell. He associated with the worst of sinners and people of the lowest situation. He helped the poor and the needy in their distress. Finally He suffered and died with criminals and was buried like any other dead man. All of this, He did for us and for our salvation, out of gratuitous love. We ought to be completely grateful, humbled, and worshipful that He submitted to all this so that we could be rescued from it.

But that, praise be to God for it, is still not my third point. My third point can be found in Philippians 2:4-11. My third point, the real life application, is that we should do the same thing that Jesus did. We should suffer all of this to rescue others. Here’s what those verses say:

Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.

When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This is what we learn from the Incarnation, from the fact that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. He humbled Himself and lived among those in the depths of sin and death. So go thou and do likewise. Jesus descended to a stable, so can we not enter the slums? Jesus got up close and personal with people who had leprosy, a disease that leads to bruising and loss of body parts. So should we.

I remember once when I was a pretty young that I told my dad I couldn’t possibly work with people so diseased or injured that they looked really gross. I just didn’t think I could handle it. As a good father should have, he rebuked me and asked how I was supposed to follow Jesus’ example. I never forgot that, and in working on this sermon I remembered it and realized how profound that rebuke was. This is the same lesson we learn in Jesus’ coming in the flesh for us. He got down in the dirt to help us, so we should get down in the dirt to help others. Jesus, as I mentioned earlier, went through puberty for us. As someone only 20 years old myself, I remember well that process and think that alone was enough of a sacrifice to teach us that God means business.

I don’t want this to stay abstract, either. I want to cut right to the real life implications of what I’m saying. If Jesus was willing to come so far down for us, we ought to really be working that kind of humble love into our lives. So think for a moment. When was the last time you visited someone who was sick, someone outside of your close family? When have you visited someone in prison, someone who however evil he may be would still be as sympathetic as any villain on Once Upon a Time if you knew his story?

Of course, for many of us the answer to both of this might be “Never.” Because we don’t do what Jesus did. Instead of humbling ourselves in obedience and stepping down from our comfort, we build up walls and separate ourselves from the lowest parts of this world. We try to protect our families from that bad world out there by not associating too much with prostitutes, drug users, homeless bums, and just rude poor people who smoke too much, even though this is precisely the kind of person Jesus sought out. We have all sorts of excuses, and I want you all to think for a moment if you do this at all.

The call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to get away from this secluded, protected world of our own making. We are told to have the same attitude as Jesus, who left the eternal glory of His Father to help slimy rich guys who cheat the commoner along with poor women who sell their bodies for extra cash. So we ought to be doing the same kinds of things, going to hospitals, prisons, orphanages, ghettos, slums, and poverty-stricken communities in landfills. We have to become part of these groups, these peoples, not sharing in any of their sins but sharing completely in their relationships. Just like Jesus made His home among our miserable race, we should be willing even to make our home within the worst nations, regions, or neighborhoods. And why? To love them and show them Christ, who humbled Himself to an even greater extent.

Naturally, we do not all have the same precise call in fulfilling this mission. Some of you parents may simply need to interact with the marginalized parents and their children at school. Some of you might need to get into prison ministry, or to start a ministry for visiting hospitalized people without families or friends. Perhaps you should get involved with one of the food pantries around, or if you know where to find one a rehab group or organization. I suspect at least a couple of you may be required to move, maybe to a third world tribe, a persecuted land, or even a crime-infested inner city. After all, people in all these places I’ve mentioned need to be helped, both body and soul, by Spirit-led believers who can share with them not only blessings for the moment but blessings for eternity in Christ.

I know, though, that these are serious callings. I also know that it is bold of me to say what I am saying, that every single one of you has some way that you are obligated in the Lord to radically humble yourselves into the depths of our broken world to bless others. And it’s a scary demand. If we do these things, Jesus promises we run the risk of being hurt physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. In some cases–if we’re doing it right–our lives may end up at stake. But where God’s call is high, His grace is even higher. See, if we are following the example of our Lord Jesus in His Incarnation, when He came in the flesh for us, then we can know for certain that God will do the same thing for us in the end that He did for Jesus. And what did He do? He vindicated Him. He raised Him from the dead and highly exalted Him, proving that He was in the right the whole time and giving Him power and authority. And God has promised to do the same thing for us. The same Spirit who raised Jesus will raise us, and if we humble ourselves we will be exalted in due time. In the end, God will publicly declare our righteousness and prove it by our good works, and He will give us authority in His kingdom. So we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to worry. The worst that could possibly happen if we follow Jesus in this way is that we could die, which we know will be undone in our physical bodies at the end. Because Jesus came in the flesh.

The Call to Believe

But of course, if you don’t have that same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, you won’t be raised. In that case there would be no hope and there is good reason for you to fear. If you are not united to Jesus Christ in the likeness of His dead and resurrection, then you are still under the one who holds the power of death, that is, the Devil. And if you merely say, “Lord, Lord,” but don’t actually do the Father’s will in imitating the love of Jesus in His coming in the flesh, listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31-46,

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

So if you are one of these goats who claims to follow Jesus but really doesn’t, or if you don’t even acknowledge Jesus as Lord at all, then you have no other choice. I’ve told you how much God loved you that He went through the whole course of human life, from dirty diapers to acne to death itself, to free you and bring you to Himself. And as we saw in Hebrews 2, He did everything that was needed to save you, since we humans were all trapped by death and couldn’t save ourselves. Now it is finished, like Jesus said on the cross. He’s done it all and by tasting death for everyone He reconciled everyone to God. So as I step down, I assume they’ll move into invitation. Which means you should repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. You will be saved. Then just like Jesus came down from heaven, come down to this altar and arrange to be baptized, so that by experiencing this sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection you can start your own journey to follow after His life of humble love.

Ascension Day: What Did Jesus Going to Heaven Do for Us?

The life of Jesus: Jesus was born of a virgin. He lived the perfectly obedient human life. He died an atoning death. He rose victoriously from the grave. The end.

Okay, that’s not the whole story. There is a part I left out. Did you spot it? After He rose again, Jesus spent 40 days appearing on and off to¬†the apostles, and finally He ascended into heaven. This event, simply enough, is called the Ascension. Given that today is 40 days since Easter, I thought it would be appropriate to say a little something in memory of this event.

The Ascension usually receives little attention, and I do not think this is fair. People view it as the happy ending. It’s the part of the story we need to get the resurrected Christ out of the picture and explain why He isn’t still around. But indeed, there is more to it than that, and this has been woefully ignored. So here’s a quick summary of two things the Ascension does for us:

  • The Ascension secures our salvation by¬†establishing Jesus’ eternal role as High Priest.¬†Hebrews mentions early on how after Jesus performed His¬†atoning work He passed through the heavens and sat down at the right hand of the Father. And what¬†does He do there? He brings¬†sanctified humanity into the presence of God so that man and God can experience the reconciliation He won. For the Scripture says, “We have a great High Priest who has gone into the very presence of God‚ÄĒJesus, the Son of God.”¬†Because of this, it then says, “Let us have confidence, then, and approach God’s throne, where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need it.” As a human representative, Jesus is our priest in heaven before the Father.

    So we who have found safety with him are greatly encouraged to hold firmly to the hope placed before us. We have this hope as an anchor for our lives. It is safe and sure, and goes through the curtain of the heavenly temple into the inner sanctuary. On our behalf Jesus has gone in there before us and has become a high priest forever, in the priestly order of Melchizedek.

    Hebrews 6:18b-20

  • The Ascension made time for people of every tribe, tongue, and nation to be saved. What would Jesus have done if He had not left? Wouldn’t He simply keep on with His task, and get straight to judging the world? After all, Jesus did not rebuke His disciples for thinking He would restore the kingdom to Israel, only that He was doing it right then. The Old Testament didn’t even prophesy about¬†separate comings; it treated Jesus’ first and second comings as a single event. But by ascending, Jesus has created time for evangelism. If the¬†end had come¬†then, only a handful of¬†people would be saved. But¬†God wanted to give everyone time to come to the knowledge of the truth through the preaching of the Gospel. Not until every people has heard will¬†Jesus return to finish what He started (Matt. 24:14).

    First of all, you must understand that in the last days some people will appear whose lives are controlled by their own lusts. They will make fun of you and will ask, ‚ÄúHe promised to come, didn’t he? Where is he? Our ancestors have already died, but everything is still the same as it was since the creation of the world!‚ÄĚ…But do not forget one thing, my dear friends! There is no difference in the Lord’s sight between one day and a thousand years; to him the two are the same. The Lord is not slow to do what he has promised, as some think. Instead, he is patient with you, because he does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants all to turn away from their sins.

    2 Peter 3:3-4, 8-9

Thinking of these things, let us thank God that Jesus did not only live for us, die for us, and rise for us, but also ascended for us! Amen.

Every Eye Open If You Want to Get Saved

‚ÄúNow none of this matters if you don‚Äôt already have a relationship with Jesus Christ,‚ÄĚ the preacher says with a shift of tone. ‚ÄúWithout Him, you can‚Äôt live an abundant life. So here‚Äôs 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‚Äôs just me. It‚Äôs okay if you‚Äôre shy, just raise your hand since everyone else has their eyes closed. Now repeat after me…‚ÄĚ

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: ‚ÄúIf you confess with your mouth, ‚ÄėJesus is Lord,‚Äô and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.‚ÄĚ 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: ‚ÄúFor 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.‚ÄĚ 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, ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs okay to let your pride get in the way of your Savior.‚ÄĚ The motivations for keeping quiet cannot be good. It may be you‚Äôre too proud to admit you‚Äôre still a sinner in need of grace. It may be people think you‚Äôre already saved and you‚Äôre 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 ‚Äúif we deny Him, He will also deny us.‚ÄĚ

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 ‚Äúeveryone will close their eyes for you,‚ÄĚ we should tell them, ‚ÄúIf you wish to follow Jesus, crucify your pride, take up your cross, and follow Him.‚ÄĚ 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.