Cheapening Grace, Part Three

So what does it mean practically when we cheapen grace? There is an interesting case study in the New Testament in one of the letters written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth related to an incident of cheap grace.

I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you — something that even pagans don't do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin with his stepmother. You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship.

Even though I am not with you in person, I am with you in the Spirit. And as though I were there, I have already passed judgment on this man in the name of the Lord Jesus... you must throw this man out.... Don't you realize that this sin is like a little yeast that spreads through the whole batch of dough?

When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn't talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in [such sins].... Don't even eat with such people.

It isn't my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, "You must remove the evil person from among you." (I Cor. 5:1-13, NLT)

Someone in the church was engaging in a sexual sin. He was unwilling to repent, unwilling to say it was wrong, and he even flaunted it. In my time as a pastor, sadly I've seen this happen first-hand. And when you see people make a choice against the moral will of God, they tend to go in one of three directions: repent, flee or harden.

Those who repent have their heart break over what they've done, they seek forgiveness and reconciliation and do whatever it takes to get back on track.

Those who flee do so because they don't want to stop what they're doing, and they don't want to have to face the consequences of what they have done. So they flee the church, the people in the church or those that represent their faith, and sometimes, even their closest friends and family. They run away from responsibility and accountability and they have too much pride to come clean about their sin or failure or weakness.

Those who harden themselves, however, are the ones who put their souls in the most danger. They make a choice for sin and disobedience, which they know is wrong, but instead of repenting, or even running away, their hearts turn hard and they say, "Who are you to tell me what's wrong?Don't judge me!"

Then they get militant, mean-spirited, hardened, resolved, defiant and rebellious about their choice. It's frighteningly dark. They shut down their hearts and turn cold and rebellious. Morality is flipped on its head as bad becomes good, wrong becomes right, and some even become almost boastful about their choice.

Paul felt it important to write to the Corinthians about this because the church had so screwed up grace that they thought the only thing real grace called for was acceptance, affirmation, and continuing on as if nothing was happening! Paul's response to this was swift and to the point:

… you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship. (I Cor. 5:2, NLT)

Now we don't like words like that, but the alternative is to make the church's reputation a joke. And even worse, to fail to act would be to trample on the cross of Christ and make a mockery of it.

We are not to judge others in the world, but we are to make honest assessments of ourselves as Christ followers. And if someone claims to be a Christ follower and flagrantly parades a life that dishonors Christ, then we are to stand up for the reputation of Christ and His Church.

Paul says we should not even eat with them – meaning, socialize with them – while they are in that state, because it sends out the signal we are affirming their choices. They must know that no one associated with Christ feels anything but disdain for those actions.

Grace is meant to be applied to something. But make sure you understand it is not to be applied to sin. Grace is applied to repentance and to remorse. Grace is applied to someone who screws up, but admits they have screwed up.

For someone who refuses to do that, who flagrantly flaunts their sin, grace doesn't apply to that. Grace is not about an easy "off the hook" for whatever you want to do, and it's not about affirmation. Grace isn't about accepting someone who says they are in Christ when they are living in a way that shames Christ – and they know it, and don't care.

So be careful when you say, "Well, I sin, too, so who am I to judge?"

That's not what this is about. There are things we are supposed to be discerning about. There are things that no matter how sin-stained we are, the church is to look at and take a stand against for the sake of Christ such as the wholesale embrace of sin without remorse, without blushing, flagrantly flaunting it before the world as if it's honoring Christ.

That is beyond heinous, beyond shameful and beyond repugnant. That's cheap grace, which is no grace at all. And you have to get this right or you screw up the entire Christian faith.

So has Meck ever removed people from membership for this? Sadly, yes. Not often – in fact I can only count it on one hand. But we've done this because the church is to be protected. The church has a collective witness; it stands for something, and membership should stand for something.

Because Christ stands for something.

If there is a habit or pattern or act of sin that brings reproach upon the church and its mission and ministry, a member who refuses to turn away from a life that brings shame on the reputation of Jesus, it must be dealt with by the leaders of the church – lovingly, and as privately as possible, with the goal of repentance and restoration. But it must not be avoided.

Grace is to flow freely toward our sin. We are all sinners – weak, frail and fragile. And we screw up a thousand times a day. The grace that was gifted to us through Christ not only saved us from our sin, but continually washes over us every day of our life. And we are to make sure we let it wash over others in Christ. No one was more of a champion for that grace than the Apostle Paul.

But when someone wants to take that amazing grace and cheapen it, distort it, reconfigure and redefine it for the purpose of pursuing sin, to use grace to say that their sin is good, acceptable, or not sin at all…

That cannot be allowed.

And the church, and those in it, must be clear about this. Or else the world will believe that we approve of such behavior, and thus dishonor the name of Christ. And we cannot, must not, dishonor the name of Christ.

So where are you with cheap grace? C.S. Lewis once wrote that God gives when He finds empty hands. Are your hands empty? Empty through remorse or repentance? Or are they full because you are clinging to your sin? Defiant?

Grace must be received. You empty your hands by admitting guilt. If you admit no guilt, there can be no forgiveness. That's why cheap grace is no grace at all.

But real grace?

Nothing is more amazing.

James Emery White

**To read the first two installments of this blog series, click here.

Sources

C.S. Lewis, Letters to an American Lady.

Adapted from the third installment of "Getting Grace Right," a series at Mecklenburg Community Church, Charlotte, North Carolina. If you would like to listen to this address as originally delivered, as well as the series of which it was a part, click here.

Cheapening Grace, Part Two

Grace and truth must go together. They are inextricably intertwined such that if you take away truth, you don't have grace anymore.

In one of the most well-known stories from the Bible, Jesus clearly delivered both grace and truth to the woman who was about to be stoned for committing an act of adultery. After the crowd of those intending to punish her dispersed, Jesus asked her,

"Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said.

"Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." (John 8:3-11, NIV)

Jesus accepted her as someone who mattered to Him, but never did He affirm the life she lived in rebellion against Him. Jesus didn't condemn her for what she did, but He didn't condone what she did either. He denounced it.

Grace and truth went together. This is important.

Some people think that in order to show grace to someone you have to ignore sin; to look the other way. They think to extend grace means you have to accept the sin and not say anything against it. And certainly that you shouldn't penalize anyone for it because if you did, that wouldn't be showing grace.

That is screwing grace up.

In the New Testament biography of Jesus written by John, he writes these words about Jesus that are so important to get down:

[Jesus] came...full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NIV)

Grace and truth together, raw and unfiltered, powerful and vibrant, flowing and free. Jesus comes to our defense when we're about to get stoned, but He's also the first one to tell us to stop sleeping around.

As Henry Cloud has written, grace is accepting relationship and truth is what is real; it describes how things really are. Truth without grace is just judgment. But grace without truth is just deception. And this is so important to grasp because "getting" grace is everything. And in the New Testament book of Romans, which is the Apostle Paul's great theological manifesto, the Scriptures are clear about this:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:1-4, NIV)

Paul was catching wind of people following a very warped chain of thought: "If my sin means that I need forgiveness, and I find that forgiveness through the grace of God that flows from Christ, then is my relationship with sin now changed, meaning that it's no big deal? Does my sin just keep getting met with God's grace and forgiveness, so it's not a big deal whether I sin or not?

"I mean, as long as I ask for forgiveness, I'm forgiven, right? So why not just sin away! I sin, get forgiveness; sin, get forgiveness – so once in Christ, sin is no longer an issue – so I can relax about it. In fact, if you think about it, the more I sin, the more grace gets to work, and that's a good thing, right? So why not just have at it!"

To that Paul says, "What are you thinking? Are you crazy?"

That's like saying, "Okay, now I'm married, so I've got that covered. The piece of paper is in hand, so now I can sleep with whoever I want, because I have the marriage thing covered. As long as I come home to my wife at the end of the day, ask her to forgive me, and make sure she knows that I'm willing to stay married to her, then what I do doesn't matter."

Do you want a marriage like that? Do you want any relationship like that? Particularly your relationship with Christ?

We died with Christ, we were raised with Christ, and if our baptism symbolizes anything, it symbolizes our entrance into a new life. It symbolizes a new life purchased at great cost.

To refuse to try and live that new life and its new commitments would be to degrade and dishonor everything the relationship is about. To dishonor everything the relationship stands for and everything that Christ did for us in order to have it.

So this isn't about a mandate to live a sin-free life, but a mandate to not lead a sin-dominated life; one where you give yourself over to it. Even to the point of saying it doesn't matter, or even worse that it's not even sin.

There's a name for that: cheap grace. Which is no grace at all.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship, which is considered one of the great Christian classics. And in it he talks about this idea of cheap grace. Here are some of his words:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace without price; grace without cost! [Through such grace] the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance,... grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.... But... real grace [is costly]. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow.... Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son. [Cheap grace] is Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.

Which is no Christianity at all.

James Emery White

** To read Part Three of this blog series, click here.

Sources

Henry Cloud, Changes that Heal.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Adapted from the third installment of "Getting Grace Right," a series at Mecklenburg Community Church, Charlotte, North Carolina. If you would like to listen to this address as originally delivered, as well as the series of which it was a part, click here.

Cheapening Grace, Part One

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There was a British conference on comparative religions that brought together experts from all over the world to debate what was unique, if anything, about the Christian faith in relation to other religions.

Was it the idea that a god became a man? Was it the resurrection? Was it heaven, life after death, or an eternal soul? Was it love for your neighbor, good works, care for the poor or homeless? Was it sin or hell or judgment?

The debate went on for some time, until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. Lewis himself had journeyed from atheism to agnosticism, and then eventually to Christianity. And after that, became one of the most famous of all Christian writers and thinkers from his positions at Oxford and later Cambridge.

Lewis asked what all of the debate was about, and found out that his colleagues were discussing what Christianity's unique contribution was among world religions. Lewis said, "Oh, that's easy. It's grace."

And after they thought about it, they had to agree.

Grace is the most distinctive idea within the Christian faith, but it is also the most controversial. It is what attracts people the most, but is also the stumbling block over which many fall. It drew thousands to Jesus during his life, but also nailed Him to the cross.

And it's important to get grace right; to really understand it.

Grace is God's gift of forgiveness and restored relationship in the face of our sin. It is freely given and totally undeserved. It's not something we earn or work for – it's not about what we do for ourselves, but what's been done for us by another.

And we are to not just receive that gift of grace at the start of our relationship with Christ, but continue to live under that grace for our lives, and to give it freely to others. Every day of our life, in the midst of our sin and failure, the well of God's grace is bottomless and because of that, we should show it to others every day of our life.

Grace truly is amazing.

But sadly, we can take that amazing grace and ruin it. We can throw it on the ground and trample it, making a mockery of it, and making it no grace at all.

One of the clearest examples of grace in the Bible is found in John's biography of Jesus in the New Testament:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"

He straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her...." At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time,... until only Jesus was left with the woman still standing there. Jesus... asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

"No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." (John 8:3-11, NIV)

That is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible and it's a remarkable story of grace. The woman in the story clearly needed it. The Bible is very clear that she was, indeed, caught in the act. They had the evidence needed to convict her.

Here's what that meant in the ancient near eastern culture of that day:

So that suspicious husbands couldn't accuse their wives without reason, the law required testimony from two witnesses who saw the couple together. And not just together, but lying together, and clearly having sex. Not only that, the two witnesses had to see this at the same time and place. They had these witnesses, so there was no doubt she was guilty. But here's where it gets even more repugnant.

Because the penalty being asked for was stoning, that tells us she was probably engaged to be married and was having sex with someone who was not her fiancé. Stoning was the penalty for an engaged person who was unfaithful to their fiancé.

Unfaithful wives could also be sentenced to death, but the law did not specify how she should die. That here we read they said she had to be stoned tells us she was engaged. So there was a pretty nasty betrayal going on behind the scenes as well.

So what did Jesus do? What did He say? His words have become almost legendary:

"If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her...." (John 8:7, NIV)

And no one did because no one was without sin. Jesus rejected a judgmental, condemnatory spirit and replaced it with grace. He didn't see her through the lens of her sin. He saw her in a different way. Everyone but Jesus saw a woman caught in adultery. A moral failure. Someone deserving of condemnation and death.

But through the extension of grace, Jesus saw a precious child of God. Someone who was a struggling in life, and who had made many, many mistakes - just like everyone else. But he also saw someone who could get past the struggles, and grow toward the person God intended.

So after telling everyone else that they have no basis for condemning her, He added these words:

"Then neither do I condemn you." (John 8:11, NIV)

But there was one more thing He said that is critical to focus on. He also said words that made the entire grace transaction a contingent affair; words that you have to get down, or you don't "get" grace. And they were the final words He said to her in verse 11:

"Go now, and leave your life of sin." (John 8:11, NIV)

Was that in any way unclear? I don't think so.

He said, "Turn from the life that led you to this moment – because you are not innocent. Turn from it; see it for what it is. You have been rescued from the penalty of your sin; live like it."

You see, to get grace right, it's not just about grace.

It's about grace and truth.

James Emery White

** Click here to read Part Two of this blog series

Sources

Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan Publishing House)

Adapted from the third installment of "Getting Grace Right," a series at Mecklenburg Community Church, Charlotte, North Carolina. If you would like to listen to this address as originally delivered, as well as the series of which it was a part, click here.

Pastors' Appreciation Month

October has been designated "Pastor Appreciation Month." I don't know by who, I just know I see it popping up here and there, and a few dear folk at Meck took the time to express their encouragement in light of its occasion.

(Most people at Meck didn't even know the month's emphasis existed. Which is fine by me, as I tend to get awkward over such things, as much as I appreciate people's efforts.)

But what I thought of most throughout the month was a different kind of pastor's appreciation. My appreciation, as a pastor, for what I get to do. I love my calling, and that I get to chase after it at as a pastor. I have the privilege of leading (I think) the greatest church on the planet. I serve with the best staff, the best leaders, the best Trustees…

So here are ten things I appreciate about being able to do what I do:

  1. Baptisms. Baptisms. Baptisms.
  2. Bringing the Bible to life (and bringing the Bible to bear on life).
  3. Witnessing life-change.
  4. A forced dependence on God.
  5. The privilege of serving.
  6. Caring for the poorest of the poor, the widows and the orphans.
  7. Letting the children come.
  8. Strengthening marriages, building families.
  9. Facilitating authentic worship.
  10. Fulfilling Jesus' dream for His church – the great revolution set loose on this planet by God to call the world back to Himself.

If you're a pastor, did you have this kind of "appreciation" month?

I'm sure you did because we all have the same top-ten list.

James Emery White

Ghosts Skew Better

Like many Europeans, Marianne Haaland Bogdanoff, a travel agency manager in Norway, does not go to church, except maybe at Christmas, and is doubtful about the existence of God.

But she believes in ghosts. Even calling in a clairvoyant to solve some troubling supernatural occurrences which were happening in her office.

She's not alone.

While Norwegian churches may be empty and belief in God in sharp decline, "belief in, or at least fascination with, ghosts and spirits is surging. Even Norway's royal family, which is required by law to belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, has flirted with ghosts, with a princess coaching people on how to reach out to spirits."

"God is out but spirits and ghosts are filling the vacuum," said Roar Fotland, a Methodist preacher and assistant professor at the Norwegian School of Theology in Oslo.

It's an important dynamic to understand.

Pitirim Sorokin, the founder of Harvard University's department of sociology, famously argued that the pendulum of civilization generally swings in one of two directions: the "ideational" and the "sensate."

The ideational civilization is more theological and spiritual, and the sensate world is more rational or scientific. Sorokin contended that the classic ideational period was the medieval. From the Enlightenment forward, we have lived in a sensate world. Now, in our struggle with what the modern world has given to us – or more accurately, taken away – there seems to be a swing back toward the ideational.

Sorokin's thesis rings true.

We live in a day that is more open to spiritual things than ever. Yet in light of the ongoing process of pluralization, along with the increasing skepticism toward a single story which encompasses all of reality (and reality itself considered a matter of personal perspective), it is less spirituality that people are pursuing as the supernatural.

There is a keenly felt emptiness resulting from a secularized, materialistic world that has led to a hunger for something more, but many are unable to go further than the search for an experience. As a result, an extraterrestrial will serve as well as an angel; a spiritualist as well as a minister. Borrowing from the late historian Christopher Dawson, we have a new form of secularism that offers "religious emotion divorced from religious belief."

So God is out, but ghosts are in.

It reminds me of something CBS head Leslie Moonves once said when unveiling a fall television line-up heavy on the occult in order to reach a younger demographic in a state of cultural change. After canceling Emmy-nominated and critically acclaimed "Joan of Arcadia," where a young woman speaks to God, in favor of "The Ghost Whisperer," a supernatural drama about a woman who communicates with the spirit world, Moonves declared,

"I think talking to ghosts may skew younger than talking to God."

Sadly, he was right.

But not only does it skew younger,

…it skews wider.

James Emery White


Sources

"Norway Has a New Passion: Ghost Hunting," Andrew Higgins, The New York Times, October 24, 2015, read online.

James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press, 2004).

Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics, Revised One-Volume Ed. (1991).

Christopher Dawson, Dynamics of World History, ed. by John J. Mulloy (ISI Books, 2002).

"CBS cancels '60 Minutes' Wed., 'Amy' – Jennifer Love Hewitt in new series," CNN.com, Wednesday, May 18, 2005; "Networks hoping viewers feel lure of supernatural" (ABC, NBC, CBS preview 5 new shows based on paranormal), Aimee Picchi/ Bloomberg News, Charlotte Observer, Tuesday, May 14, 2005, p. 4E; "CBS Moonves: 'Ghosts Skew Better Than God,'" Drudge Report, May 19, 2005.

Hitler's Return

It's been more than 70 years since Adolf Hitler, the infamous Nazi leader, shot himself dead in a Berlin bunker. Yet in the new film, "Look Who's Back," his return is explored. In Germany, no less.

The twist is that, in "Borat" form, the returned Hitler presents himself and his ideas to ordinary people who are, in fact, ordinary people. They are not actors. They are real people interacting with a fictional portrayal of Hitler.

And that is when it gets disturbing.

Yes, you have the expected posing of these people with the notorious leader for selfies; some even adding the famous Hitler salute. People were both excited and amused. The producers wanted the director, David Wnendt, to include more negative reactions to the Nazi leader, but he couldn't. Out of 300 hours of filming, there were only two negative reactions.

As an article in the Washington Post observed, the "largely positive reaction to Hitler among Germans may remind some of the way Mao Zedong is treated in China or Joseph Stalin in some parts of Russia — as a kitsch curio."

Yes.

But it went further.

People enthusiastically embraced the actor's portrayal of classic Hitler propaganda, such as disgust with immigration and democracy. When Hitler asked one woman to pinpoint the source of the problems in Germany, she immediately pointed to the foreigners who are arriving. Another man tells him that immigrants from Africa are dragging down Germany's average IQ by around 20 percent.

In one of the more worrying scenes, Hitler is easily able to persuade a group of soccer fans to attack another actor making anti-German comments, forcing the film crew to step in and protect the man. As the director noted, "It was so easy to get them to do that."

And these were not neo-Nazis, but normal middle-class people. All stimulated simply by standing in front of a man dressed as Hitler, espousing Hitler's ideas.

"Look Who's Back" opened in Germany at the beginning of October and prompted a robust debate within the country about its meaning. It should have. As the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper wrote in one review, it was as if Hitler "never really left."

The film's director, David Wnendt, said he is happy with the response to the film. "People leave the cinema discussing the subject," he said. "They're asking, 'Is it really that bad in Germany? Would Hitler really have a chance again nowadays?'"

The disturbing answer is, apparently, "yes."

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adam Taylor, "A new film asks what would happen if Hitler returned to Germany. The answer is worrying.", The Washington Post, October 22, 2015, read online.

God's Top Secret

I am often surprised by the number of people I talk to – including pastors and leaders – who struggle with feelings of unworthiness.

It reminds me of a game that psychotherapist and author Larry Crabb once wrote about.

A group therapist would play a game with people in his groups called "Top Secret." Here's how the game worked.

He would ask them to write out the one thing about themselves that they were the least inclined to share, and to then return the paper unsigned. In other words, write down the one thing that nobody knows about you – the one thing you've never shared.

Over the years, one answer consistently emerged as the most frequently admitted top secret: "I feel utterly worthless."

When we are real, open, vulnerable – willing to be truthful with ourselves and the world – what we admit is that we do not consider ourselves of much real value.

Many may not know this, but Martin Luther felt the same way. In 1527, he wrote, "For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost."

This reached a point of spiritual crisis, with Luther writing that "the content of the depressions was always the same, the loss of faith that God is good and that he is good to me."

So what made the difference?

Luther insisted on listening to another, more important, voice.

The voice of the truth of God's Word, over and against his own insecurities, doubts and misgivings.

Even over the accusing voice of the evil one.

He tells of how the devil approached him one day and accused him of the enormous sin in his life. Satan laid out a long list of sins of which Luther was guilty, and thrust them under his nose in accusation.

Luther said to the devil, "Think a little harder; you must have forgotten some." So the devil thought a little harder and added another few hundred to the list. When the devil was finished, Luther said, "Okay, now take a pen and some red ink and write across that list 'The blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanses us from all sin.'"

You can take up the same pen, writing as Luther himself did in his magnificent hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," the title now etched around the tower of Castle Church,

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

God desires nothing more than to infuse your heart and mind with a sense of meaning and purpose, and to call you to the front lines of what He is doing on this planet in light of His divine plan for your place and role.

Your mission, your place, will be unique from all others. He has a vision for your life that is yours and yours alone.

But following that vision will demand listening to His voice. Yes, it may include the voice of conviction, but never the voice of accusation. And the loudest voice of all will be that of affirmation.

Because if you answer the call of God, and walk with Him in obedience, submission and devotion, if you give your life over to Him – then you will become who you were created to be. And you will do incredible things.

Because God is a big God, who wants to do big things and He wants to do them through us.

That's God's "top secret" for you.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Adapted from James Emery White, A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying Through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). Click here to order this resource from Amazon.

Three Ways to Teach the Bible

There are three ways to teach the Bible.

The first is to teach it as a good book, full of aphorisms and stories that enrich human life and thought. This is the "classical" educational approach.

The second is to teach it as a practical book, full of principles and practices that enrich human life and thought. Every idea, every maxim, is about you. As some have quipped, this is more "narcigesis" than "exegesis."

This tends to dominate many, if not most, contemporary churches.

The third is to teach it as the Word of God, full of truth and revelation that commands human life and thought. This is the historic approach, and the one most tied to the Bible's actual nature.

The difference in the way you teach it matters.

If you teach the first way, then you may as well teach Hemingway as Habakkuk, or Rousseau as Romans. You are teaching it as literature – beautiful, small "I" inspired – but literature. As such, it is no different than Proust or Dickens. You can be appreciative, but not affected.

If you teach the second way, then you are offering little more than a self-help seminar that could be matched by anything on Oprah's network. You are engaged in therapy more than theology. Therapy matters, to be sure, but if the therapeutic rests on little more than seeing the Bible as the source for "tips and techniques," then it is only as significant as the latest edition of Cosmopolitan.

If you teach the third way, well…

Then you have unleashed revelation itself. God has thundered and we can only bow our heads and open our hearts, minds and hands. Revelation is different than something good or helpful; it is the voice of God echoing down from Heaven. It demands that we become like clay, malleable and shaped. If we harden against its voice, then again, like clay, we can only crumble in response to its touch.

Not simply in practice, but thought.

As Mark Galli wrote in a recent editorial in Christianity Today:

"The Bible is the Word of God primarily because it reveals the nature of God – who God is and what he has done for us. And that in turn shows us what it means to be those created in his image. Yes, it includes practical teaching for daily living. But most…[p]astors, teachers, and small-group leaders would be wise to spend more energy showing how the Bible is the source of the great church doctrines – which are so often about God and his saving world. It's time for our main pedagogical question to be not, 'What difference does this make?' but, 'What does this tell us about our good God?'"

Sadly, most teach the Bible as a good book, or a self-help manual. They fear tapping into its deepest voice, and deepest waters, in fear of turning people away.

Shame. Both "it's a shame" and "shame on them."

"It's a shame" because it's only the Bible's true voice that will offer the world that which it doesn't already have. And most desperately needs.

And "shame on them" because most know only too well that it is a slap in the face of the doctrine of revelation to teach the Bible as anything but what it is.

Revelation.

James Emery White

Sources

Mark Galli, "Why We Need the New Battle for the Bible," Christianity Today, September 24, 2015, read online.

The Playboy Grave

Playboy magazine has decided to end printing the pictures of fully naked women. So as many have been joking, if you really did read it just for the articles you're in luck.

It's hard for younger generations to realize the cultural weight Playboy threw around. During the 1970s, it was estimated that one out of every four college males was reading it. It "was there at the start of the American sexual revolution in the early 1950s – and drove it wildly through the 1960s and 1970s spanning continents."

Yet the greater cultural headline is why they will no longer feature nudity.

The rise of internet pornography.

The magazine's circulation began to drop off in the early 1990s, from a record 7.2 million for the November 1972 edition to just 800,000 today. So the libertarian views of its founder, Hugh Hefner, the "leader of the revolution that helped take sex in America from furtive to ubiquitous," have won. Or as Scott Flanders, Playboy's chief executive told the New York Times, "You're now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. It's just passé at this juncture."

Yes, it sadly is.

And because we live in such a pornified world, we can forget how damaging that world is.

Let's not.

It is sexual sin. Jesus made it clear that when we give in to lust, it is akin to the act itself. It makes no difference whether you know the person or not; lust is not tied to relationship.

It is addictive. The ubiquitous nature of porn is new to our culture, and to human sexuality, but it is becoming increasingly clear that it is highly addictive in nature. As a result, it can not only begin to dominate a life, but can demand ever-increasing levels of exposure and ever-increasing degrees of experience to continue to stimulate.

It is degrading to women. In pornography, women are treated as objects. They are not fulfilling God's dream for their life as His precious daughter, nor are they fulfilling His design for sexual expression and fulfillment. You are watching a woman who is being sinned against, treated in a way that is contemptible to her heavenly Father (whether she sees it or not – and the fact that many may not only adds to its tragic nature). And if you are a woman watching it for the men, it is equally degrading to them.

It leads to other sins. Studies are beginning to show that the effects of porn on men are more than temporary sexual stimulation: as they see women treated as objects, they begin to treat women that way. They become more sexually aggressive, leading to date rapes and expected "hook-ups."

It harms your relationship with your current, or future, spouse. It is absolutely ridiculous to say that watching porn enhances a sexual life. Instead, it cheapens it. Those caught in its web testify to how porn quickly becomes a substitute for sexual intimacy with your spouse.

It desensitizes your soul. Sin of any kind desensitizes your spiritual life. Continued exposure to a sin such as pornography is like shooting Novocain into your soul. It deadens you and grieves the Holy Spirit in your life, forcing Him to withdraw His utmost filling in a way that diminishes His power and presence in your life.

It distorts sex. Nothing reduces sex to lust more than pornography. Yielding to such images is overwhelmingly addictive, like a narcotic that delivers a quick hit to the emotions or senses, but ravages you from within. It destroys real relationships, real intimacy, real sexuality.

So Playboy magazine finds its nudity irrelevant in a Playboy world. By helping create a sexualized world, it dug its own grave.

Unfortunately, it dug a grave for much more than itself.

James Emery White

 

Sources

"Playboy Magazine abandons nudity," by Barney Henderson, The Telegraph, October 13, 2015, read online.

"Nudes Are Old News at Playboy," by Ravi Somaiya, The New York Times, October 12, 2015, read online.

See also James Emery White, A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity Press).

Unity, Liberty and Charity

There's a catch-phrase that's been around "Meck" (Mecklenburg Community Church, which I pastor) for a long time: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

It's not original with us. Though the origin is debated, it is most commonly attributed to Augustine.

The idea is simple: the beliefs, convictions and doctrines that are central to the Christian faith are hills we must die on. No matter what it might cost us in terms of attendance, media coverage… Christianity is what it is. There are certain things involved in being a Christian church, certain beliefs and convictions and doctrines. If you cease to hold to those beliefs, you cease to be Christian.

If you want a precis, start with the Nicene Creed.

But in non-essentials, we want to be advocates for liberty. In other words, there are some things that thinking, devoted followers of Christ have disagreed on for 2,000 years.

For example, consider the various views surrounding the unfolding of the end times. At Meck we have folks who are pre-millennial, amillennial, post-millennial, and those who don't know how many "L's" are even in the word millennial!

Another area of liberty has to do with the charismatic movement. While Meck would not be considered a charismatic church, we have people attending from that background, and people who would be catapulted into speaking in tongues if they were ever exposed to that background. Yet all get along without pursuing a particular agenda for redefining the church into a particular type.

It's the same with many other honest debates, such as Calvinism vs. Arminianism, or Steelers vs. Packers. (Actually, that last one isn't a real debate. It's the Carolina Panthers all the way. Any other view is subject to church discipline).

You can also put some lifestyle issues in with this. For example, the Bible states that giving ourselves over to the state of intense drunkenness is never plan "A," but how we live our lives in order to honor that command differs widely. Some believe that it is best to abstain completely; others feel free to have wine with every meal and a cold beer watching their favorite team.

All should be done with discretion and discipline, but there is true freedom. Though there's not space to parse it here, this is the central thrust of Romans 14.

So in the essentials, we have unity.

In the non-essentials, we have liberty.

But in all things we have charity – which is just another word for love. As we put it, we have made the decision to "agree to disagree, agreeably."

Seems easy enough.

And to be sure, it's created a sweet spirit at Meck. But it's not easy for most churches. And as a result, the spirit is not sweet.

As I have reflected on this over the years, the breakdown comes in two ways: those who want to make essentials non-essentials, and those who want to make non-essentials, essential.

And then, want to fight about it.

In other words, they violate all three of Augustine's dictates.

Why?

Pride.

Enter the apostle Paul in a most overlooked comment:

Now regarding your question about [fill in the blank]…Yes, we know that "we all have knowledge" about this issue. But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn't really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes. (I Cor. 8:1-3. NLT)

The heart of the disruption of "in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity" is the heart of all sin: pride, coupled with the lack of love.

So how do you combat this pride?

By acknowledging, humbly, that there is an "essentials" bucket, and we must submit to that biblically and historically, instead of making our personal lifestyle choices and desires the guiding compass.

By acknowledging, humbly, that while there is an "essentials" bucket, more falls into the "non-essentials" bucket than our prideful sense of knowledge may want to admit – and its contents may be larger than what we have decided to put there.

By acknowledging, humbly, that no matter what we may believe, there is no excuse for lovelessness toward another.

No excuse.

I often get asked by other pastors how Meck has gone nearly a quarter of a century without a split, without a parade of pastors, without anything but a unanimous vote on every issue (yep, it's true).

It's simple.

Because with all those "withouts" there's been one big "with":

"In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

James Emery White