Love: The Final Witness

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).  The world has a God-given right to judge our affiliation with Christ on the basis of our love for each other.

Jesus extends the connection between our love and His mission as One sent by the Father in John, chapter 17.  Listen to Jesus’ prayer for His disciples and His followers who will come after them.  “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.  The glory that You have given Me I give to them, that they may be one even as We are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me” (Jn 17:20-23).

Twice in this passage Christ ties His claim to being sent by the Father to our unity as a community of believers.  In essence, our love is a witness for the claims of Christ to a watching world.  While we need to be clear on our content and teach pure doctrine, the world generally sees our content as just another option in the religion salad bar.  What they can’t explain away is our love.

And our love is not just a witness to an unbelieving world “out there”, but is a strong testimony to our young people at the crossroads of staying or leaving the faith.  You may recall that we started these posts about love as a way to address one particular complaint of those leaving the church; the complaint of “hypocrisy and lack of caring among church leaders.”  Just as the love was the answer to strife, envy, and disharmony in the church at Corinth, love is also the answer to hypocrisy and lack of caring in today’s church.

These charges – hypocrisy and lack of caring – are both answered in Romans 12:9-10, “Let love be without hypocrisy.  Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor.”  When our love is genuine, when we abhor evil and cling to good, our lifestyle will agree with our words and hypocrisy will be defeated.  When we honor and give preference to one another, we provide a powerful antidote to a perceived lack of caring.

When our young people judge the Christian faith on the basis of our love or lack of love, they are not being shallow, selfish, or overly emotional.  They are merely doing what Jesus said to anticipate.  Our role is to embrace the challenge and respond with a vibrant and relentless love not only toward each other but toward our seeking generations behind us as well.

Biblical Perplexities and the New Covenant

Another challenge in the area of biblical perplexities is how we handle the time gap, the language gap, and the culture gap between the New Testament and our present experience.  This is where our theological humility comes into the picture.  Our western and modern mindset wants to put everything about God and His communication with man into neat, logical pigeonholes.  Insisting on a specific theological bent forces us into apparent contradictions and complicated efforts to explain them away rather than just accepting and celebrating the mystery.  There will always be a certain amount of mystery in Scripture.  That is just the way God is.

So while the Bible includes plenty of chronological detail, it is not a western-style history book.  And in our efforts to understand it as one, we are frustrated by what appear to be significant events with little mention (maybe one verse), important events that seem left out altogether, other events repeated (often from a new angle), and all kinds of things foreign to our western mindset.  But not all of Scripture is that way.  Romans chapters 1 through 8, for example, is one of the most compelling arguments of western style logic explaining in a linear method man’s need for salvation, God’s solution in Christ, and how we are to live in light of all Christ accomplished on our behalf.  Again, the overall approach is varied as we must assume God intended.

So if the Bible is not a western-style history book or a western-style science book or a geometry book with theorems and their proofs, what is it?  The Bible is a book of theology that describes the actions and attributes of the One True God and His interaction with man.  It culminates in God’s most specific interaction in the coming to earth of His Son, the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth as set forth in the writings of the New Testament.  In fact, Jesus’ arrival, earthly ministry, death, and resurrection was such a dramatic intervention by God that our entire arrangement with the Sovereign of the Universe was changed.  In Christ, a term used over and over in the New Testament, everything changed in our relationship with God.  A change we do not understand and emphasize and preach nearly enough.

The Old Testament is God-breathed.  The Old Testament is inspired Scripture.  But the operative word in that endorsement is the word “Old.”  We need to help our young people understand that the Old Covenant has ended (see II Cor 3:11 where the Old Covenant is described as katargeo [Greek], literally “brought to an end”).  The law’s requirements, punishments, complications, and expectations are gone with no application to the New Covenant believer which we are.  Of course, most Christians would argue that they are not following the Old Testament law.  But what I observe in practice is the heart is still referred to as “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (even though it has been replaced in the believer by a new heart that is soft toward God), sin is our default mode (even though our sin nature died with Christ and holiness is now our default mode), and we expect God’s material blessing for obedience (a message not found in the New Testament where challenges and adversity are more likely the outcome of devoted obedience).

If you have followed this blog for some time, you recognize I am back on my New Covenant soapbox.  If you are new to these posts and interested in just a taste of what the New Covenant has to offer the believer may I refer you to some of our earlier thoughts such as “Something New”, “A New Heart”, and “The Sin Cow” as a good place to start.

The Distorted Message

Comedian Ricky Gervais, a professed atheist, famously wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial that he is a better Christian than many Christians because he does a better job of keeping the Ten Commandments.  My first response to Mr. Gervais would be, “Wrong religion!”  He is talking about Judaism, not Christianity.  But I am inclined to give the British comic a pass because it is a common mistake made by religious and irreligious alike.  And it gets to the root of our young people’s problem with biblical perplexities and higher criticism.

The message of the Bible that our young people think is fraught with contradictions, overseen by an angry God, and disconnected from reality is NOT the true message of Scripture, but a caricature of the Bible that we have allowed into our churches and homes by our sloppy interpretation of God’s Word.  By taking verses out-of-context, worshiping the English words rather than the original meaning, and failing to fit Scripture into the big picture, we have created a distorted imitation of the true message of the Bible.  This distortion is what our young people are rejecting and rightfully so.  But without the true message in front of them, they have nowhere to turn and in sad numbers are abandoning the faith.

What do I mean by distortion?  Let’s start with a simple one related to our introduction to this post.  Christianity starts with the Ten Commandments.  True or False?  Of course, the answer is false.  Christianity begins with Christ.  It not only begins; it lives, dies, and finds its full expression in Christ alone.  Everyone generally agrees with this last statement on an intellectual level, but in practice, not understanding all that changed between the Jewish religion of the Old Covenant and the Christian message of the New Covenant, and elevating the Old Testament to a prominent place in the Christian message is all around us.  And it distorts our message into the consequence model of the Old Testament where…Christianity is about following the rules.  Christianity is about God rewarding those who follow the rules.  Christianity is about God punishing those who do not follow the rules.  The highest goal of the Christian life is to attain God’s blessing – material wealth, happiness, etc. – that is promised in the Old Testament.

In short, this kind of teaching and belief lead to what sociologist Christian Smith discovered in his extensive research into the spiritual lives of American teenagers.  He found most teens “practicing a religion best described as ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,’ which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are ‘good, nice, and fair.’  Its central goal is to help believers ‘be happy and feel good about oneself.’ ”

Author Drew Dyck asks and answers the question, “Where did teenagers learn this brand of faith?” in an article in Christianity Today magazine.  He writes, “Unfortunately, it [Moral Therapeutic Deism] is taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches.  It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups.  When this naive and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away.”

In other words, what God are we describing to our young people?  The God of the Bible with all His glory, mystery, and off-the-charts-ness intact, or a God we can tame to do our bidding?  Let’s deliver a true message, including the fantastic new arrangement He offers to each of us in the availability, newness, and power of the New Covenant.

Biblical Perplexities

Another of the challenges identified by Dr. Ruth Tucker in her book Walking Away from Faith is biblical perplexities and higher criticism.  For those of us who have grown secure in the reliability of the Scriptures, it can be easy to dismiss other’s doubts with a quick wave of the hand across the standard arguments that convinced us.  But as in the case of our previous topic – the interaction between faith and science – a proper mix of confidence and humility is in order.

On the confidence side, we have the Bible rooted in secular history more securely than any other religious text.  For example, here is a New Testament passage you probably did not memorize in Sunday School that sets the tone for accepting and embracing the authenticity of the Gospels.  “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.  And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk 3:1-3).  And the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was soon to follow.

Here and elsewhere, Luke establishes the time (around 30 A.D.) and the place (Palestine) for the announcement of Jesus’ coming and the subsequent commencement of His earthly ministry.  Since then, many specifics of Jesus’ culture, travels, ministry, and crucifixion have been corroborated by archeology and historical research.  (see The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel).

With so much evidence in our corner – and growing all the time – why the doubts?  I suspect the case for doubt in the area of biblical perplexities is at least two-fold.  First, our time and place in history is separated from the New Testament authors by large gaps in time (about 2000 years), in language (Aramaic and New Testament Greek vs. English and other modern languages), and in culture (an eastern vs. western mindset).  These “gaps” lead to confusion, apparent contradictions, and a misunderstanding of the basic message of the Bible.  How we address these “gaps” rather than just glossing over them can make a huge difference in keeping our young people intellectually connected to their faith.

The second reason for doubt in the face of biblical perplexities is the general and uneasy feeling that the message of the Bible stands in contradiction to our everyday experience.  In other words, “If the Bible were true, it should explain or at least agree with my present reality and it doesn’t.”  As more and more young people move away from the rationality of our western philosophical tradition, connecting the truth of Scripture to their reality becomes even more crucial.  In my opinion, the Bible not only agrees with our reality, but is actually the only philosophical system (if we can call it that for this discussion) that fully explains our reality; a connection to reality so strong to me that it was the primary driver in my decision to fully embrace the gospel message of Jesus Christ as a college student.  Unfortunately, this message is often missed by our young people today and its cause will be taken up next time.

What We Know

Our last several posts highlighted some of the challenges with synthesizing our faith and our science.  The specific topic has been the process of creation.  When I said last post that Genesis is not a science textbook, it may have raised the hair on the back of your neck since for years that quote has been code for joining “the other side” in the creation/evolution debate.  With the baggage that comes with the term “evolution” and the contentious history of the debate, it behooves me to make sure some points are clear.

  • I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and everything recorded in it is true, including where it touches science and nature.
  • I personally do not have a firm opinion on the length of God’s creative process, but join with all Christian scientists and Old Testament scholars who believe that no matter the length, it is not a naturalistic, random, unguided process.  We affirm the God of the Bible is the Creator.
  • I believe God created the world out of nothing.
  • I believe God created man and woman in His image, distinct and separate from the rest of His creation.
  • Theological humility is not, “We can’t know anything.”  It is recognizing that there is more to God than He has chosen to reveal.  It is recognizing He has given us everything we need for “life and godliness.”  It is using sound interpretation principles to expound God’s Word without addition or deletion.
  • In case anyone thinks that even my consideration of a long, progressive creation is somehow caving in to peer pressure within the scientific community or an attempt to “accommodate” our culture, you don’t know me very well.  I am at that magic age where I have no interest in letting what people think of me sway my opinion.

I guess what I have been trying to say is that as Bible-believing followers of Christ, we have plenty of issues that separate us from the cultural norm (Our appropriate insistence that Jesus is the only way to eternal life with God, the Father, comes to mind).  So why add unnecessary conflicts that only confuse young believers and unbelievers alike.  Let’s stick to the things we know – of which there are plenty – and let the pursuit of science continue to unlock the mysteries of this incredible world God has created.  There are no guarantees, but I believe this path is true to the faith and in answering our young people’s questions with this kind of theological humility, we may move them one step closer to embracing for good the faith of their childhood.