24 July 2006

Philologous Sermonator?

“Keeping Christ in ‘Christianity’ ”

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight—if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1:15-23)

In his book, The Scewtape Letters, C. S. Lewis, in the persona of the demon, Screwtape writes of something which he calls Christianity And. Writing to his dear nephew, Wormwood, Screwtape says:

The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians, let them at least be Christians with a difference (Letter 25).

When you think about it, there really isn’t anything wrong with a Christian being concerned about the things which Scewtape catalogs there. But there is a problem with letting such concerns – even legitimate concerns - become confused with the message and the ministry that God has committed to the Church, what Paul calls “the ministry of reconciliation” in Second Corinthians 5:19.

The epistle to the Colossians was written by Paul while he was in prison to a congregation which he didn’t start. The church was actually begun, in all likelihood by Epaphras. Five to seven years after he started the church, Epaphras went to visit Paul and to inform him of a strange teaching threatening the health of his church. An appetite had emerged, for something more than the crucified Christ, a Greek-influenced Jewish philosophy which viewed Christian as still vulnerable to spiritual forces, which needed to be placated through various forms of asceticism. It’s difficult, from what we have in the text, to reconstruct this teaching, but Paul’s corrective is to point the Colossians in the direction of Christ, and Him alone, for acceptance before God. He begins his letter by commending their faith, which he has heard much about. Then he proceeds to an extended doxology on the preeminence of Christ, which transitions nicely to the passage before us.

After extolling Christ as the “image of the invisible God [and] the firstborn over all creation” (v. 15), and who has preeminence in all things, Paul informs the Colossians that it “pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell” (v. 19). The way the passage is here in English—“it pleased the Father that”—one can get the idea that the fullness just happen to find its way into Jesus and the Father decided He was okay with that. But the entire verb phrase, pleased ... to dwell, is in the active voice, the idea being that it pleased the Father to settle the fullness—of Deity—in Christ.

Now, not only was God pleased to place all the fullness of Deity in Christ Jesus, but also to effect the reconciliation of the entire creation to Him by means of the shed blood of Christ, which, somehow, makes peace. So in verses 19 and 20 we are given both the agent (i.e., God) and the means (i.e., the blood of the cross of Christ) of the reconciliation.

If we were encountering this for the first time, with no prior knowledge of any of the truth claims of Christianity, it might occur to us to ask why reconciliation was necessary, as well as for whom it was necessary. Clearly, reconciliation was necessary at least for the Colossians. But we can also understand that all men stand in need of reconciliation with God through the blood of the cross. But why?

Because, as Paul says, they, and by implication all humans, were “alienated and enemies” (verse 21). It might be better to understand “alienated” as a noun because—not to engage in needless display of scholarship—it is a Greek a participle which in this context seems to function as a noun. This understanding parallels Paul’s teaching in Ephesians that they (i.e., the Ephesians) were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise” (2.12). With these two parallel passages in mind, we can get an idea of the sort of alienation we are talking about. When Paul talks about being “aliens from the common wealth of Israel, he means to say that they are foreigners, not members of the people of God, not beneficiaries of his covenant with Abraham. So the Colossians are not aliens to God in the sense of being unknown to Him; they are aliens in the sense of not being “officially” recognized by Him as loyal subjects, citizens of the nation over which He is King.

It may be helpful to understand the situation in this way. Keeping in mind that we are only analogizing the relation of subjects to a sovereign, let’s think about the American Revolution. Let’s say, for purposes of understanding, that the claim of the British Crown over the territory of the United States, and the citizens of the Unites States still stands—and is a legitimate claim! We continue as what you might call subjects in rebellion. Now, we did not engage in any acts of rebellion. But the founders of this nation did. In something like the same way, we inherit from our ancestors (i.e., Adam and Eve) a state of rebellion against God. Whether we like it or not, God so ordained things that when Adam rebelled against God’s authority and set himself up as an authority over against God, he took us with him. That was the condition of the Colossians in their alienation. That is our condition.

As if that were not bad enough, however, they are also enemies of God. How? If you talk to most people, they will probably tell you that they are not aware of being hostile towards God. Oh, they don’t go to church, of course. Who really needs to do that? But they try to live a good life. They probably pray. But they don’t express hostility to God. They don’t call him names or tell him to take a hike. They are not at odds with God so far as they know. In fact, they are good people—for the most part.

Think about the predicament I just illustrated for us. Despite our continuing on as subjects in rebellion, we are relatively law-abiding citizens. Our problem, at least as far as the British Crown is concerned, is that the Queen’s Laws are not our laws. Of course, the people we have in mind—those who are not at odds with God—lead good lives. They don’t murder. They don’t steal—very much. They don’t lie—very often. They don’t commit adultery—physically. They will even keep their word, especially if they think it’s good for business.

But when we look into why they obey, we find the hostility: it is not primarily, and only, to please God. I have asked a lot of people, non-Christians, who haven’t committed adultery, why they have not. I rarely hear any one say that it is because he doesn’t want to sin against God. The most common answer (and these are all males, not females) has to do with what these men think their wives will do to them if they ever cheat! Note the agenda. It is not God’s agenda but their own. No. They don’t murder. They don’t steal. They don’t lie. They don’t commit adultery. They even keep their word.

Humans engage in all sorts of acts with all the moral conviction in the world, confident that they are being obedient to some moral law. And they will do so for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the God who gifted them with a bent to think in terms of right and wrong. Some will even deny to humans the right to kill animals and eat them, or even to use their skins for clothing, not because they are pursuing God’s agenda or seeking to obey him, but because on their view of things there is no difference in importance as you move from chicken to cow to pig to dog to cat to human. And this despite the fact that God has given His permission to eat animals and that the first person to kill an animal and use its skin for clothing was God Himself (see Genesis 3:21).

We can hit the target of God’s law. In a lot of ways that isn’t the problem. The problem is how, exactly, that mark gets hit. In reality most of us just happen to hit that mark the same way, perhaps, that a rock you might throw at a moving school bus just happens to enter a window and hit someone in the head. And even those people who occasionally hit the mark, and do so because they are trying to hit the mark that God has set, will do so for self-seeking purposes. They do good, or attempt to do good because they hope that if the good they do somehow outweighs the evil they might do, they’re going to be good to go with the Spirit in the Sky, or The Man Upstairs. But it seems not to occur to them (and it didn’t occur to us, either, once upon a time) that something just may need to be done about those evil things, especially if we want God to be just—unless we want God to be just with, say, Hitler (everybody picks on him) but not with us. This ultimate self-seeking is the hostility: the pursuit of our agenda, for our own ends, and for reasons that seem good to us. This is why Paul refers to our hostility as being “in the mind” and “accompanied by evil works” (verse 21). The hostility is not all in minds in a way that means “unreal.” It’s real. Our minds are just not set on God; and our actions, even if technically “good,” reflect that fact.

So we need this reconciliation. Because what God has decided to do about those evil deeds that we were hoping he would just overlook, is pay for them Himself. That death which Adam owes God (and so do we, as subjects living in rebellion) as the penalty for his original act of rebellion has been paid in full. And because it has been paid, the One Who paid that penalty for us can present us “holy, blameless, and above reproach” in God’s sight. Not because we are in our essence, but because once the penalty for the commission of any crime has been paid, the law is done us.

If you get a speeding ticket, when that ticket is paid, the law is done with you. And you yourself don’t really have to pay the ticket yourself; the money doesn’t have to come out of your pocket. Someone with money can pay it for you. The law doesn’t care where the money for the fine comes from. Now, you may owe something to one who pays the fine; but the law is done with you. And that is how we come to be able to have Christ present us to the Father “holy, blameless, and above reproach” like lambs fit to be sacrificed (see, e.g., Leviticus 1.3), except we don't have to be sacrificed.

To this point we’ve looked both at the agent and means of reconciliation and at the recipients of the work of reconciliation. In wrapping up this part of the passage the apostle makes a comment which ought to grasp the attention of Reformed people. We believe that Scripture clearly teaches a view which typically gets summed up as, “Once saved, always saved.” Here in verse 23 Paul says, following verse 22 that Christ will present us “holy, blameless, and above reproach in God’s sight” if we continue in the faith. If. That seems to indicate (doesn’t it?) that indeed we can lose that salvation which has been purchased for us. That is one way of looking at it.

But we need to look at this keeping in the mind the verb that is controlling all this, in verse 21. That verb is reconciled. It doesn’t come out in English so well, but the word translated reconciled is a word which stresses the completeness of reconciliation. It wouldn’t be stretching things to say that the passage says, “completely reconciled,” as opposed to simply reconciled, as in “conditionally” reconciled. What would that condition be? Continued, perfect obedience?

So, why the “if”? Why would Paul tell us that Christ will present us “holy, blameless, and above reproach” if we continue in the faith, if we truly are reconciled completely all at once? Note that Paul doesn’t really say only “if we continue if the faith,” but also if we are “not moved away from the hope of the gospel which [we] heard.” Now it is possible to read that as evidence that one can lose his faith. But keep in mind that Paul in this epistle is writing to people who have a different problem. These are people who have heard, and perhaps even decided, that there are things they must do in order to continue in the state of reconciliation. Nothing that Paul has written here gives any indication that he is concerned that they will lose their faith. No, he’s concerned that they are wanting to add things to it that, first, are unnecessary to maintain that reconciled relationship and, second, actually will diminish that glory which rightfully belongs to Christ! (And if you want to get the Apostle Paul excited, you just do or say anything that will diminish Christ’s glory.)

Note the warning about being moved away from the hope (or the expectation) of the gospel (verse 23). What is the hope of the gospel, if not that reconciliation through Christ’s blood, that he’s just been talking about? It is not so much that we’d better not lose our faith or else Christ won’t present us holy, blameless, and above reproach. It’s more like, if we want Him to present us holy, blameless, and above reproach, then we’d better let Him, and Him alone, do all the work. If we take over the job, it’s going to get messy. If we take over the job, Jesus can’t present us holy, blameless, and above reproach because our best works of righteousness, on our most righteous days are, as Isaiah says, “like filthy rags” (64.6). And the sort of filth Isaiah has in mind means that no one will want those rags once they’ve been used for the job they were used for! Those are our best works, on our best days.

All of this is good for us to know; it's critical, need-to-know information, especially if we hadn’t known it before. But we study the Bible, and have the Bible preached to us because we believe that despite having been written thousands of years ago, it still speaks to our lives today. But what about this passage? We know all this, don’t we? We’re probably not in any danger of worshipping angels. And we’re Presbyterians, so we’re also probably not about to start requiring the observance of fast days, or the keeping of certain feasts--no monastic practices for us. But keep in mind that the problem for the Colossians was syncretism, in their case a combination of orthodox Christian belief with some Jewish philosophy. We may be in no danger of combining our orthodox faith with a Jewish philosophy. But we may still be in some other danger.

Clearly, the Christian message is a message of reconciliation; and the ministry of the Church is a ministry of reconciliation. And that reconciliation is by means of the blood of Christ. This work of reconciliation will ultimately result in our presentation before the Father as those who are holy, blameless and above reproach—not as the result of our own work, but of the work of Jesus Christ. That, in a nutshell, is our message. Communicating that message is the Church’s ministry.

The Colossians lived in an age of philosophizing. By that I mean an age in which everyone had a philosophy: everyone belonged to some school, not of rational investigation, but of occult speculation. We have some of those today. But I doubt we’re are in much danger in our denomination. The Colossians found themselves lost in “Christianity and Jewish Philosophy.” Our problem may turn out to be “Christianity and Politics,” or something like that.

Unlike the Colossians, we live in an age in which everything isn’t really “philosophized;” but rather, everything has been, and is, politicized. Everything! If you listen closely to virtually any discussion, very few—despite superficial appearances—have anything to do with what the truth is. Indeed, I’ve noticed that most people seem to have no idea when—or even how—something is proved. When confronted with an argument whose logic they cannot escape the average person seems inclined to respond with some ad hominem argument. Whether or not someone is found guilty of a crime—or even arrested in the first place—may have more to do with the color of his skin or his socio-economic background than with any appeal to facts or to logic.

In his book, Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi, discusses how sometimes power plays a role in deciding what counts as science. Scientists, among other things, protect a “way of knowing,” a procedure for discovery. If you don’t follow that procedure, you don’t get to have the title, Scientist. A concern for something other than truth is paramount.

In this present age, a system of thought is “true” only because the people who hold to it have the political power to impose it on others. And so, since truth doesn’t matter because there is no truth, power is all that there is. Since one can no longer persuade others that something is true (because even logic is just a weapon in an arsenal), if one is going to “have the day” then one simply must have power—political power. And so the church finds herself living in what James C. Edwards calls the “Age of Normal Nihilism.” This is an age dominated by talk of values, which are always relative, rather than facts, or truth.

Into this age of “normal nihilism” with its talk of values rather than facts, the church attempts to speak and act. And believing that Christians have a duty to God to exert some influence in the affairs of nations, we try to do so here in the US. Pursuant to that goal, most of us are involved on some level in the political discourse of our nation. Many are office-holders.

Right here is where I think we face the danger. In this age, in which even truth is about power, it will become possible, even probable, that the involvement in some Cause, if not handled properly, can move Christ and the message of reconciliation to the shadows. We'll still talk about Christ, of course; we have to, at least occasionally.

When I became a Christian back in 1988, abortion was the issue of the day; and I found that my fellow Christians expected me to have an opinion on the matter. I also found that the opinion I was supposed to have was that Christians had a duty to do everything possible to rescue the unborn from being aborted. One of the leaders of the movement ridiculed pastors who did not think they were called to take up the Cause in the way thatothers were. “I’m only called to preach the gospel” he said, mocking them as if the real problem was lack of courage. And that struck me as completely out of line: just preaching this message of reconciliation through the blood of Jesus is enough to get people killed in some places in the world!

What happened to this man (I'm certain of it!) was that—and this is the danger—the Cause of abortion had become a necessary component of the Christian religion. I quoted C. S. Lewis just a few minutes ago. Let me quote him again, from the same book (with a few alterations for clarity):

Whichever [political cause] he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating [it] as a part of his religion. Then let him...come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “Cause,” in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the [cause]. The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience (Letter 7).

This is the danger, that in this present age, we will show up on the political scene and come off as one more contesting army in The Battle of The Truth Regimes. And in this battle the message will seem to be: No abortions; no same-sex marriage (or any other special rights for homosexuals), no fetal stem cell research, no euthanasia or assisted suicide, no common law marriage. (Positions I happen to agree with, for whatever it's worth.)

In order to stay on message, it may be necessary for the churches of Jesus Christ to let some things go, politically. I won’t speculate, here, what those things may be. But, in an age of nihilism, if we can’t move a political cause forward by making our best rational case, then our only option, if we are committed to moving those causes forward, is the political option. We will need power in order to make people behave the way God wants them to.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I’m not saying that the ministry of reconciliation means that we don’t get involved in the life of the nation in which God has placed us. But I think that our involvement needs to be based on something other than the idea of America as a Christian nation. A better text for understanding our involvement is Jeremiah 29:4-7:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all who were carried away captive, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon; Build houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; Take wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters; that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it: for in its peace you will have peace.

Now peace isn’t simply an absence of warfare. It refers to health in all degrees. You could think of it as meaning health, prosperity or any kind of success. If you wanted, for example, to ask a neighbor about his business, you could ask him about the shalom of his business. If you wanted to wish a child well in an upcoming soccer match of football game, you say, "Shalom at the match!" It may not even be improper for you to wish someone a good day by telling him, "Yom shalom." So we are to seek the shalom, the good health, the prosperity, the success of this nation. Now you could say, “Wouldn’t its success and health be increased by obeying God?” Not at all. We already covered the sort of obedience that “aliens and hostiles” offer to God. Do we really want to ask people to offer God just that sort of obedience? If we work too hard to get people to offer God that sort of state enforced obedience we may discover that our message of reconciliation sounds more like this: We don’t mind so much if they perish, just so long as they behave while they are perishing, and leave us alone.

The church at Colosse felt a need—among other things—to appease angels. The church in America, dominated by a (legitimate!) concern for Christianity and Politics, seems to feel a need to appease God by the use of political power to make this nation obedient to Him and thereby prevent a judgment of God on it.

People come truly to obey God when, after they are reconciled to Him by the blood of the cross, they come to know God and love God. We may have to let some things go by unchallenged, politically, in order to ensure that the message of reconciliation through Christ doesn’t get drowned out in the noise of battle.

I need to confess that I am not politically neutral. I have my causes. I'm an ex-soldier. In a lot ways I still think of myself as a soldier. And I love a good battle—maybe too much, especially when my side wins. But the ministry of reconciliation through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ requires us to do excellent work in choosing our battles and choosing the best means of fighting them.

After Israel Tal an George Patton, one of my favorite generals is the First Duke of Wellington, the general who defeated Napolean at the Battle of Waterloo. After the battle Wellington, while surveying the carnage, mused, “Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.” It would be a misery (wouldn’t it?), if not a sin, if, after we have won all the battles over all our causes, we found ourselves unable to get a hearing from people for the message of reconciliation and peace-making accomplished by God through the Lord Jesus Christ. After all, very few people would be willing to accept a cool drink of water from someone who has—at least from his perspective—just given him a merciless beating. In our day and age, our main task may be to ensure we don’t lose the message of reconciliation through Christ because we have fallen into that state of mind that dear, old Screwtape calls “Christianity And.” We don’t want to run the risk of making people wonder what that cross was all about.


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