Somebody in our travel department apparently doesn’t like me… So, sitting at Narita Airport in my 11 hour layover, I was looking for things to do.
And I did it.
I’ve promised myself that I wouldn’t, but I did. And I really wish that I hadn’t, because it makes me sad. Oh yeah, and angry, too.
What? What did I do?
I’ll tell you in a minute, but first I need to tell you something about the past few days…
I traveled Wednesday and Thursday to spend a day in Singapore on Friday – which was the last day of Ramadan. In Islamic culture, Ramadan is a special month of cleansing the soul, fasting (no meals during daylight), self-control and charity… generally, putting more effort in following the teachings of Islam and seeking to grow closer to God. By tradition, the Qur’an was given to Muslims during this month. On Saturday, then a special celebration known as “Eid” was held (in Singapore and Malaysia, they call it “Hari Raya” or “the Grand Day”). People celebrate, gifts are given to children, special services are held, people feast together during the day, and celebratory traditional costumes are worn in honor of the event. Think Christmas, and you’ll have a flavor of it.
Now I could write about the fact that every store I passed was closed – EXCEPT for the ubiquitous American Fast Food Franchises (Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC). As the only American on the trip, I certainly got an earful from my Muslim colleagues about the cultural insensitivity of America, and it’s participation in the dilution of all independent civilizations into one giant mall-culture (but that’s a different post). I was struck, though, by the fact that Christianity is effectively TOTALLY unknown in the business communities here… oh, I don’t have a “scientific sampling,” but you can get the flavor of it, especially over time. The newspaper I read Saturday on the way to Malaysia was full of holiday news, and especially highlighting the wide ethnic and cultural diversity in their religious heritage, all of which was Islamic (with some small number of Buddhists thrown in for good measure). Christians were not even mentioned. It struck me: We’re not a minority - we’re irrelevant, and the Good News of the Gospel certainly is, well… whispered, if heard at all in many, many corners of this world.
The cultural differences can not be overstated. Within the general overall urbanization of world culture – the “Brand-name-ization” of world society (as David Wells so articulately points out in his book Whatever Happened to Truth?) the residual effects from the religious heritage is very, very foreign. Or at least it should be… let me explain.
The holiday showed me again more of the ways in which this part of the world – 99.9% Islamic – seeks relationship with God. And that, I suppose, is the point: They seek God. Their effort is the focus of their activity in seeking to please him. And the message of Jesus is exactly the opposite – it is God’s activity that is the preeminent one, the focus of everything, and that we are, apart from Jesus, “able to do nothing.” It is Jesus, after all, who is to “save His people from their sin” – who presents us holy and complete before the father as a result of His finished work. Of course we have responsibility, and effort is required. But it is a responsibility that we freely acknowledge that we are utterly incapable of fulfilling in our own effort… it is God’s work in us that we are totally dependent upon. Paul points out this clearly:
We work, but it is God who is working. Our salvation – all of it, from our election and predestination, to our conviction, regeneration and conversion, through the process of sanctification and ultimately at the end, our glorification – again, all of it, is the work of God for His glory and our benefit. That is a very different message from the message my Islamic friends hear.
"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." Philippians 2:12-13 (emphasis added)
Are you still with me? OK, back to the Tokyo airport, and my mistake: Like I said, I did it.
I listened to an American sermon online while sitting in the airport. One preached by a guy who is a solid member of the Evangelical community. The pastor talked about our responsibility, our effort, our requirements, our actions… oh, he made passing reference to “God’s grace,” but he was clear in saying that it is our effort which makes the difference. The passage in question focused (in the text) on a request for God to do something. He acknowledged that “God was at work” in the process, but the focus of the message was on a call for us to do something. Oh, and that our failure to do things actually hindered God’s work – especially due to the fact that if we were better, more people would be converted!
And I’m sad, and even angry, that that is increasingly the message I hear in Evangelical Christendom. A message that says, work. Try harder. Expend more effort. Here’s your responsibility, get going. And poor God longs for you to do so, but He’s waiting for Almighty You to get busy and stop thwarting His will and purpose.
Where is the message of our total and complete dependence on God in everything - including serving Him?
Where are the messengers (and the messages) that call God’s people back to the realization that we are to “abide in” Jesus and that, apart from Him we can do nothing? Come on, you may say to me. You’re shadow boxing. You see things that aren’t there. Of course we all understand our dependency on God in the process of sanctification. Don’t we? I don’t think so. As a matter of fact, I’d challenge you to listen carefully for the message… you may be very surprised.
Here’s what I think: The distinctive message of Christianity, the centrality of the work of God rather than the work of man, is being diluted. Perhaps it is out of concern for some perceived inactivity within the Church, or some other problem. But whatever it is, I increasingly hear the argument that we ought to focus on “deeds, not creeds” and that what we believe is secondary to what we do. Few are as crass as, say, Brian McLaren, in expressly denying this and other central truths of the Gospel message, but I believe it is happening nonetheless. And increasingly, the message is getting flipped on its head – that it is Our Ability rather than God’s which is central to the process of living out the Gospel. And that’s a message that, in all material respects, is no different than the world view of my Muslim friends.
In the most recent edition of Modern Reformation magazine, David Gibson has an interesting article called “Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections En Route to Denying the Gospel.” Gibson points out the historical trend of diluting the message within the Church’s history: One generation proclaims the Truth, the next generation assumes the Truth and the third generation denies the Truth. Apostasy and heresy rarely come in through the front door in an open attack on and debate of the Truth; they usually come quietly and arrive more slowly as a generation merely assumes that everyone understands the Truth. And all the while, false teachers “creep in unnoticed” (Jude 4), changing the message and removing its power as a result. Gibson believes that the Evangelical movement today is in the middle stage, the “assumed truth” stage, and that unless corrected, we will head down the same path to denying truth. Gibson writes:
“Assumed Evangelicalism believes and signs up to the gospel. It certainly does not deny the gospel. But in terms of priorities, focus and direction, Assumed Evangelicalism begins to give gradually increasing energy to concerns other than the gospel and key evangelical distinctives, to gradually elevate secondary issues to a primary level, to be increasingly worried about how it is perceived by others, and to allow itself to be increasingly influenced both in content and method by the prevailing culture of the day…. It is extremely difficult to spot… The danger of assumed Evangelicalism is precisely the fact that it has come from somewhere and is heading to somewhere else very distinct but the in-between-ness of it makes it a lot harder to see until you have arrived on the other side.”
There’s more to unpack there than I have time to address today, but I'll say this: I used to be amused by those who criticized Reformed Theology as something which promoted inactivity… any student of Church history knows that it is precisely when the pulpit is used to proclaim both our responsibility and our inability that the greatest periods of lasting productivity have occurred. But we evangelicals aren’t merely post-Calvinistic; I fear we’re also post-Arminian, for even they have historically acknowledged our total dependence on God’s work in and through us – an acknowledgement which was demonstrated in their preaching and action. I believe we are headed towards yet another “Palagian Captivity” in the Evangelical movement. The “Assumed Evangelical” nature of our preaching makes it hard to be sure, but the warning clouds are on the horizon. As a practical matter, for example, listening to many sermons (like the one I heard today) would lead the listener to believe that any man can begin “the faith journey” by simply doing something, and that we “grow in our faith” by doing more, and better. Oh, and that God loves all of us, and He’s patient, come whenever, give it your best shot, etc.
I hear none of the passionate urgency required by the Truth that those who have not been born again are children of the Devil (and NOT God’s children), under God’s righteous condemnation, objects of His wrath and bound for an eternity in hell. ALL of those Truths have been (at best) assumed in the presentations of the Gospel I hear these days from some. And ALL of those statements now are the subject of debate even within the Christian publishing and magazine base and, as a result, the rank and file is growing less certain and more confused about these things over time.
These are Facts:
People aren’t born neutral, capable of being “seekers along a ‘faith’ pilgrimage” until they cognitively understand the example of Jesus and determine to follow it. That’s Palagianism – and heresy.
People aren’t Christian just because they say they are, or have made some "decision." Christians are those who have been born again by the will of the Father – not by man’s “desire or effort.”
And Christians aren’t neutral, spectators in a cosmic battle between God and Satan, choosing sides and, when choosing against God’s plan, somehow thwarting the will and purpose of God.
All of these thoughts, increasingly common in my hearing at least, are a reflection of a philosophical and theological perspective that is at best confused, and which leads paradoxically, to both false confidence in those who are not truly regenerate and false guilt in those who are. And while that may not be “what we mean” to say, the “assumed” nature of our presentation (or lack thereof) of the extent and sinfulness of sin, the totally lost nature of man, the inability to do anything of merit before God, and other “negative” doctrines leaves the unbeliever unwarned and the believer potentially deceived. “How are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14)
I’ve just crossed the international date line on the way home. It’s been a turbulent flight… a fitting end to a turbulent week. Our hope is so very different from that of much of the world, whether it is the over-arching secularized worldview or that of any other religious perspective. I worry that we who have the Truth are assuming away the central message of the Gospel – our total dependency on Christ for His work in and through us in every way, and going the way of Ramadan – doubling down, trying harder, doing more, and missing it all in the process. The practical indicators of where we as a movement are in our demonstration “abiding in Christ” are all together too apparent even for us to ignore much longer.
Paul said it this way: “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh…” (Philippians 3:3)
We are good at being the ones set apart, and we love to “worship by the Spirit” – do we just assume that everyone understands that we, in our message and in practice “put no confidence in the flesh” or are we on the road to a different belief?