Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Transforming Gospel

Western culture is a culture of individualism. At least in has been until now. Whether or not that individualism is threatened by mechanisms at work in certain segments of our society is a matter of debate. This article is not concerned with social or political philosophies that may or may not be gaining acceptance within the larger society as a whole. Rather, it is concerned with something far more significant than social or political philosophies. It is concerned with Western ideologies that directly impact the integrity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The lack of sagacious leaders in the Christian community is perhaps on the verge of eclipsing the pre-reformation era. At a forum this week, I experienced the following: first, one conservative evangelical was chiding the church for singling out homosexuals and telling them they are doomed to eternal condemnation unless they repent. He went on to talk about how this was a real problem in the churches. I thought about the onslaught on homosexual attacks against Christianity in recent years and how those attacks have escalated and I am bemused that this man thinks the problem is with the church. He went on to say that condemning homosexuals to hell was not our job. This is God’s job. I was aghast that a conservative writer would engage in this sort of reasoning. The second experience was with a music pastor who thinks the church should shut up about sola scriptura because “every evangelical” believes in it. Therefore, you should not use it when contending with one another about Scripture. Clueless is the word that comes to mind. The single greatest threat to evangelicalism over the last decade has been a trajectory away from sola scripture at an alarming rate. Undiscerning is this music pastor, in my humble opinion. Finally, another conservative fellow, involved in ministry, found it necessary to correct my thinking on repentance, saying, quote, “Repent is not equal to change.” In other words, to repent does not mean to change. Now, while it is true that change itself does not necessarily equal godly repentance, it is also true that where there is no change, there is no repentance. As I look at these three interactions, it seems clear to me that the church, if it has not already, is on the verge of losing its identity. The loss of this identity, in my opinion, can be blamed on American (Western), hyper-individualism. The gospel of Christ has one essential goal in mind: the glory of God through the transformation of the elect to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ.

The gospel of Jesus Christ comes to us via a text. Specifically, it comes to us via the text of Scripture. Because this is true, interpreting the text that contains the gospel is paramount to arriving at an accurate understanding of the good news that is the gospel. “The phrase “transforming texts” can be interpreted in two ways. Texts can actively shape and transform the perceptions, understandings, and actions of readers and of reading communities. Legal texts, medical texts, and biblical texts provide examples. But the texts can also suffer transformation at the hands of readers and reading communities.” [Thiselton, Anthony C. New Horizons in Hermeneutics. 31] The fundamental requirement necessary to be the object of change is openness. To be open is to be vulnerable to correction by the other: to freely entertain the idea that I may be wrong and therefore, change is in order. Indeed, our culture boasts about the openness it possesses because it embraces ideas like evolutionary theory, homosexual marriage, numerous social causes, etc. However, this is not openness. One can be dogmatic about not being dogmatic. In other words, it is possible to be closed to ideas that we claim we are open to. For instance, some would say they are open regarding gay marriage because they think gay people should be allowed to marry. That is not ipso facto being open. Being open means that you are willing to examine the case and consider that you could be wrong about it and as a result, you are willing to change your mind provided the evidence suggests your position is wrong. That is what it means to be open. As Christians, there are certain things we should be open about until Scripture closes them for us. The authority for what is right and wrong for the Christian community is the text of Scripture. We come to the sacred text in order to change. We do not come merely to enhance knowledge. For the Christian, increased knowledge translates into increased transformation. The whole idea of what it means to be “Christian” is summed up in the word “dependent.” The Christian is dependent on the triune God, the sacred text that is divine revelation, and finally, the Christian community for his/her Christian-ness. God elects the Christian to be Christian. The sacred text provides the life transforming knowledge that leads to Christian living. The Christian community provides that sacred family and the safety net of accountability we all need to help us grow in the love and holiness that is the demarcation of the Christian life.

Everyone who reads the sacred text has a decision to make. This decision is mostly felt at those points where the texts threatens us. The biblical text threatens us when it criticizes our behavior. This behavior could be how we think, how we speak, or how we act. As slaves of Christ in each of these areas, we are not free to do as we please. Our thinking, our speaking, and our acting are hostage to Christ. The single greatest threat to this philosophy of life is the western philosophy of hyper-individualism. I am not suggesting that traces of this thinking did not exist in the history of man. I believe it must have. However, it seems clear that many cultures have taken the philosophy of individualism to the extreme. Moreover, this individualism is contrary to the very fabric that is Christianity. Embedding the necessary foundations to establish a vibrant Christian community will be impossible among people who refuse to be open to the biblical concept of dependency that serves to underpin the Christian idea. Independent people recoil at the very thought of dependency. As old “blue eyes” sang, “I want it my way.” This is the way every independent thinker wants it.

What is the answer to this independence? The biblical text speaks to this desire directly. Jesus said that whoever desires to save his life will lose it. (Matt. 16:25) Why? It isn’t about my life! In the previous verse, Jesus said that anyone wishing to come after Him must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Him. (Matt. 16:24) Not only are we to deny self, we are to embrace the idea of lacking. Specifically, we are lacking in terms of suffering. We are NOT to lack when it comes to suffering. Instead, we are to take up our cross daily and follow Him. Sometimes, taking up that cross can mean devastation. It can mean the loss of a job. It may mean that an unbelieving spouse that you love ends up divorcing you because you have become a follower of Christ. It may mean that your church splits because you decided to stand for the truth of Scripture and confront sin rather than wink at it in order to keep the numbers up. Following Christ can sometimes be costly. Jesus said that unless you loved Him more than your own family, you are not worthy to be His disciple. (Lu. 14:26; Matt. 10:37-39) Paul says that we are to put to death the deeds of the flesh, or the self. (Rom. 8:13) We are to be transformed as opposed to continually conforming to this world. (Rom. 8:1-2) Paul said a little later that we are to look at ourselves as members of one body! We are not a bunch of individuals running around. We are to see ourselves as part of a body, the body of Christ. Our actions affect the entire body positively or negatively. Our goal is the health of the body. We are to seek for the edification of the entire body at all times. That begins with our own spiritual healthiness, but not for our sakes alone, rather for the glory of God and for the sake of His church, the body of Christ. The real issue is that we simply don’t consider the body of Christ, or even the glory of God when we make decisions or as we live our lives on a daily basis. That must change if the church is going to live by the motto “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.” “The church reformed and always reforming.” Either the gospel transforms our lives, or we transform the gospel into a message we find palatable. There is no middle ground. Give us leaders who will fearlessly stand on this principle and love people by giving them the gospel that transforms.

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