Tough Questions at Chico Grace Brethren

Our nation seems more divided than ever on moral and spiritual issues. The different tribes watch comfortable cable channels, subscribe to congenial blogs, or lob incendiary posts at other tribes on social media. Each group is trying to control the script—evangelicals included.

There are fewer places where the tribes even live side by side. A New Yorker might read What’s the Matter with Kansas? while flying over the actual state at 30,000 feet. Here in northern California, it easier for an evangelical to see a video of a scientist on YouTube than to talk with one face-to-face.

But Chico and the ridge have all the tribes. We are not isolated from people who think differently. They’re next door. So, at Chico Grace Brethren, we decided to start a dialogue.

Over the summer we said to friends and neighbors, “If you could ask a pastor to speak on any question, what would it be?” We found that the conversations lowered barriers. We also thought the questions we received were terrific. I choose six of them to address in a short series that starts this Sunday.

The series is called, “Tough Questions,” and the title fits.

Some of the questions are confrontational. “Why would I want organized religion?” Or, “How can Jesus be the only way?” Others come from profound pain. “Why does God allow evil against children?” Two questions are simple requests for information: “What happened when Jesus was young?” “Where is heaven?”

This is a way we can throw away the script and have a real exchange of ideas. I also take written questions about the sermon and answer them during the service. We’ve found that this kind of dialogue keeps the atmosphere respectful and the temperature low. We won’t necessarily be able to agree, but we will find some new ways to talk about timeless issues. We hope you will join us, either at 10:15 a.m. on Sundays, or on the web at chicogracebrethren.com.

Jesus Projection

by Matthew Raley The name "Jesus" has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that "Jesus" is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.

Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our "Jesus."

We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive "Jesus" who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist "Jesus" who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting "Jesus" of "Godspell," "Jesus Christ Superstar," and "The Last Temptation of Christ," molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we've inveighed against the gnostic "Jesus" who had a child with Mary Magdalene -- a savior for conspiracy theorists.

Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We're right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can't seem to reject the blank screen itself. We've profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we'd undermine our salesmanship.

For the last forty years at least the evangelical "Jesus" has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.

In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he's way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn't lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, "Dude!"

This "Jesus" can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for "Jesus," maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice "Jesus" is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.

The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.

The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible's words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.

Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can't abide: "God's plan isn't all about you."

But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.

Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus "did not entrust himself to them." (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, "Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself." (John 6.15)

So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he's still commanding, "Follow me."

The Empty Tomb and the Empty Easter

by Matthew Raley For American evangelicals, the resurrection of Jesus Christ seems to have become a tall tale. We retell the story with gusto, but by Easter afternoon the resurrection fades to legend.

Evangelicals historically saw Christ's rising from the dead as the volcanic core of the Christian life. He conquered death not just by rising, but also by pouring his life into his followers. To a person was hostile to God, the essence of spiritual death, Christ restored love. He replaced rebellion with willing obedience. Christ's presence was the hot energy that transformed a believer's motivations.

In other words, evangelicals used to emphasize Jesus's teaching in the Bible about the new birth, that human beings must have a resurrection of God-loving energy and that nothing else can save us.

In the late 20th century, however, evangelicals' concept of the new birth degenerated. The phrase "born again" came to describe a ticket to heaven, eternal life guaranteed by a single prayer. We focused on getting people to pray that prayer, and with some success. Many got their ticket.

But we had trouble motivating ourselves to spiritual vitality. Those who prayed that prayer -- who in fact prayed it repeatedly, grasping for security with God -- were rarely taught that the new birth radically changed their identities. We generalized about "a relationship with Jesus" as if it were a life-upgrade, a fix for whatever made us unhappy, rather than life itself.

So Christ's resurrection became a mere story.

I meet countless believers who know that Christ's power is not extinct, but who only see glimpses of it. The trivial new birth taught by churches has drained their vitality.

I hear three such trivialized versions of the Christian life.

Many believers describe being born again as a cathartic emotional high, a personal, authentic experience that gives meaning to life. Following Christ to them means striving to recapture the high -- and failing. Their church has taught them existentialism with the name of Jesus attached on a post-it note. No one should be expected to build his life on such sand.

Others see the Christian life as maintaining a good family: striving to be a good wife or husband, striving to keep bad influences out of the home, striving to raise good children -- and failing. These believers have been taught moralism. Week after week in church, they have heard five steps to good communication, seven steps to good time management, and a wearying list of other "practical" suggestions for getting their act together. Christ's role in their spiritual life is to forgive their accumulating sins. And that's his only role.

Still others describe the Christian life as activism. Many older evangelicals strive to recapture America's political system and restore the culture they once knew. Younger evangelicals, reacting against their elders, often strive for progressive causes. But political striving fails too. These believers have been taught different forms of ye olde throne-and-altar religion, that Christ builds his kingdom through governments. Christ role for them is to get the right people in office.

These forms of striving -- existential, moral, and political -- have three things in common. Each replaces Christ with an idol, a totem of sanctified obsessions. Each fails to supply Christ's power, leaving the soul dessicated. And each consigns Christ's resurrection to legend: an inspirational diversion from the cares of life, but not ultimately relevant to our pressing work.

For evangelicals now, the most important thing about Christianity seems to be our responsibility to solve our own problems. Some dress that message up in therapeutic lingo. Others now supplement it with a grab-bag of medieval mystic practices. But it's the same old bad news: "God helps those who help themselves."

Churches must restore the emphasis on genuine power. Christ is risen. In him we also have been made alive.

I notice that discouraged believers still distinguish between the follies of churches and the power of God. In discouragement, they persistently hope in Christ, knowing that his subterranean heat remains fierce even if the ground looks cold.

They should take comfort. Easter is not empty.

Sermon for My Grandpa's Memorial

by Matthew Raley As I remembered Grandpa in the hours after he died, I thought of 1 John 3.1-3.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

I struggled with my memories of Grandpa that night. Each memory was good without giving me comfort. In fact, some of my most important memories of him were like a slap in the face. Grandpa is gone. I won’t see him again in this life. There were some gifts that only he could give because he was Grandpa, and no one can replace him. Though I can remember what he gave, he won’t give anything more.

The words from John helped me understand something about Grandpa’s life and death. Meditate on them with me.

John’s point is that the Father has given us a unique relationship. Look, John says, at “what kind of love” the Father has given. John doesn’t marvel that there is so much of God’s love, or that God’s love toward us is so deep, but that God’s love is a specific kind. His love is the kind that calls us his children.

John explains what he means elsewhere in this letter. Human beings are sinners, and have no fellowship with God (1.6, 8). So we do not become his children because we love him, but because he loves us first. And the Father loved us by giving his Son Jesus on the cross to pay for our sins (4.10). When we believe in Christ, John says that we are “born of God,” that God “abides in us” (4.13-16; 5.1).

The love that calls us children of God is the kind that bought us a second birth in Christ.

Grandpa believed these things. He and Grandma realized who Jesus is and began to follow him at a Billy Graham crusade. Grandpa knew that God’s love is not a generic benevolence, but a sacrificing love.

The next statement John makes is stark. He describes the alienation between the world and the Father. “The reason why the world did not know us,” John says of himself and the other apostles, “is that it did not know him.” John also explains and repeats this statement throughout his letter. There is no darkness is God, and darkness does not have any fellowship with him (1.5-6). “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” John writes (2.15). “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

This kind of alienation from the world was something Grandpa knew too. He told me that, before he started following Christ, he had been made Sunday school director at his church. Grandpa realized that he had been in charge of teaching children about Christ, but hadn’t been following Christ. So he went to the pastor and resigned.  The pastor didn’t see that Grandpa’s lack of personal experience with Christ made any difference, and declined his resignation. Grandpa was astonished. “You mean, it doesn’t matter to you whether your Sunday school director is a Christian?” A major reason why he and Grandma moved here in 1955 was the realization that their church didn’t think being “born of God” was important.

In fact, the new birth is constantly being downgraded from essential to optional. Those of us who claim to follow Christ tend to rejoice in our sins being paid without looking too carefully over the itemized bill. The logic of John—the logic of the Bible as a whole—is relentless on this point: sins by nature are destructive and incur a cost. Grandpa’s sins were costly. His redemption came at a price. The logic drives on: if that cost is paid for me, then I do not belong to myself anymore. Grandpa struggled to reach that conclusion. And so we all do. We sometimes wish that we could take some of the world’s plastic into the streets of gold.

John’s next sentence is the reason I thought of these verses the night Grandpa died. “We are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared.” There are two points in those words. He says we have this amazing identity right now: we are God’s children. All the acceptance, security, and love of God’s household belong to us. The story has passed the turning-point. But then John says that we can’t picture what we will be. The Last Day hasn’t come. Our final image hasn’t downloaded yet. The story isn’t over.

So when Grandpa was with us, he belonged in the Father’s household. He was a child of God. But there is more to Grandpa that remains hidden.

These words from John helped me because I realized that the best gifts I received from Grandpa were from Christ. In this life, Grandpa was born of God, and the many good things Grandpa gave were the overflow of that new birth.

Some of those things were simple.

He knew how to delight and amaze his grandkids. He could twist an apple in half with his bare hands. He made all sorts of toys: trucks, puzzles, guns. He taught me the first lessons I can remember in creativity. When I was 8 or 9, I asked if he would make me a rifle. All I had in mind was the shape of a rifle cut out of wood. Grandpa went to his shop, drew a rifle onto a scrap of plywood, and proceeded to cut it out. But I could see that the barrel was way too short. I was worried. Didn’t Grandpa know about rifles? Didn’t he know that the whole point of a rifle was the long barrel? I gently pointed this out to him, but he didn’t seem concerned at all. So I figured it could still pass for a sawed-off shotgun. But Grandpa had other ideas. What I thought was the barrel was actually just the stock. For the barrel he used a couple feet of half-inch PVC pipe. When the bad guys saw me coming with that rifle, they all ran.

The first lesson in creativity was, “Don’t rush the genius.” The second was, “A creation is the best gift.”

Grandpa could be extremely funny. He was the master of deadpan storytelling. I can’t tell his masterpiece the way he told it, but I can give you the gist.

Across the road from the family home was a field that Grandpa was clearing, and in the field was a stump. He decided that, instead of cutting the stump out, it’d be faster to blast it. So he went to town to buy dynamite from the only place you could get it, and that was the Baptist pastor’s wife. She sold him the dynamite, but she gave him some advice. “Don’t pack too much under the stump. Only use a little.”

He nodded but thought, “What does she know?”

When he was finished packing all the explosives he had under the stump, he lit the fuse and took off running. The blast shot the stump into the air, past Grandpa, across the road, over the family home, and into the back yard.

Moral: listen to the pastor’s wife.

The simple gifts are worth a lot, whether a toy or a tall tale. But some of the things Grandpa gave me were deeper.

I worked with him on his rentals for two summers as a teenager. I learned from working alongside him, and I learned from watching how he related to people—open, polite, understated. I saw these things and more because he gave me time.

He also gave me understanding.

One summer I preached a sermon at a Free Church youth conference in Denver in front of a panel of three judges. I was seventeen. My model for public speaking was William F. Buckley, Jr. When I finished and sat down with my youth pastor, Dan Tedder, and the judges, one of them held up my notes and said, “What is this? What are you trying to do?”

Grandpa was on the church board at the time, and he heard from Dan about how the judges reacted. A couple weeks later Grandpa and I were reroofing one of the 7th Street houses, and somehow we started talking about Denver. He stopped, set his hammer down, and said, “I heard what that judge said about your sermon. That wasn’t right. You just keep following the path you’re on, and the Lord will use you.”

I was blessed in my teens to have people in my life who understood me, my parents and Dan Tedder included. Grandpa’s gift of understanding at that moment was powerful.

John’s words helped me understand that Grandpa’s gifts to me really came from Christ’s work in Grandpa. God used Grandpa’s gifts to stir and strengthen my spiritual life, and I continue to grow because of them.

John’s next words helped me understand Grandpa’s death. “But we know that when [Christ] appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” John picks up the idea that we don’t know yet what we will be in eternity. The end of the story is when Christ returns. We will finally have an unobstructed view of him. No more speculation about what he is really like, no more wondering what he would do or say. We will see Christ as he is, and John says we will then become like him—just the way children learn.

What is Christ like? Glorious, gentle, meek, true, life-giving, gracious, loving.

Grandpa had some of those qualities some of the time, and because he was a child of God those good things built us up. Now Grandpa sees Christ as he is. Grandpa is like Christ. He has all of Christ’s qualities eternally. His story is finished.

John’s last words in these verses give us a glimpse of Christian integrity. “And everyone who thus hopes in [Christ] purifies himself as he is pure.” We don’t purify ourselves by willing away our sins, nor by rationalizing them. We purify ourselves by setting our hope as God’s children on the Last Day, the hope that we will see Jesus Christ in his perfection, and that we’ll become complete in him. This hope arouses us to reject the plastic gloss of this world and strive for the prize of the upward call.

Interacting With "Love Wins"

by Matthew Raley The publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins marks the acceptance of emergent Christianity by the American mainstream. Bell has been featured in a Time cover story, and is now a reference point for all sorts of popular spiritual writing. The pantheon of the American empire now includes Bell's Jesus.

Over several posts, I'll discuss some features of this book that I think will be most important for evangelicals in the coming years.

The first feature: Bell denies that biblical doctrine has significance in human salvation. The Bible contains teachings, sure. But knowing them is problematic, both interpretively, in finding what they mean, and morally, in maintaining humility.

Bell's denial that doctrinal belief is essential to salvation is explicit, coming in his discussion of Jesus' claim in John 14.6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Bell does not deny the exclusivity inherent in that statement. But Bell argues,

What [Jesus] doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn't even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him. (p 154)

Love wins, Bells argues (pp 144-157), because Jesus is the sustaining power of all creation, and he saves people no matter what they do or believe, wooing them through recurring opportunities to embrace him.

The denial of doctrine's significance is also implicit, a denial through method. Bell is a deconstructionist.

Bell's claim that Jesus never specifies how people are saved illustrates neatly. It is exegetically preposterous on its face. In the very document Bell discusses, Jesus repeatedly links salvation with belief, as in John 12.44-50, where Jesus makes "the word I have spoken" a person's judge on the last day, and where he declares that the Father has given him "a commandment -- what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life."

(Indeed, Bell quotes a fragment of that paragraph [p 159], in which Jesus says he came to save the world, not to judge. But Jesus said that in order to set up his word as judge, and belief in his word as the "mechanism" that saves.)

Such bits of trivia don't matter to Bell. The Bible for him is not a revelation of God's truth. Rather, it is full of the raw materials for God's story: poems, riddles, metaphors, hints, dribs and drabs of ancient cultural perspectives. We are supposed to find God's story in those materials. Bell complains that historic Christianity has told a story that's bad, having hardened all the raw material into absolutes. There's "a better story" (pp 110-111).

This view of the Bible creates a new role for exegesis.

We expound the Bible not so much to learn what is true, as to deconstruct our own preconceptions. So, Bell offers long passages studying such words as hades, gehenna, aeon, et al., not to build up our understanding of what these words mean, but to tear it down. By the time Bell is done with text after text, we no longer know what the words mean. And with traditional concepts safely deconstructed, Bell is free to pick from those materials and tell his better story.

Many conservative theologians are saying that Bell is a theological liberal. To be sure, many of his conclusions are indistinguishable from the old liberalism. But I want to register one qualification that puts Bell and many emergents in a different category.

Modernist liberals 150 years ago believed that the Bible's teachings were knowable, and that our reasoning about texts added to our knowledge. It is not clear to me at all that Bell believes this. Bell seems to believe that knowledge itself is a kind of arrogance, and that doctrinal knowledge, in terms of the fate of every person who ever lived, is of no significance.

Evangelicals should watch this feature of Love Wins to see whether Bell is merely being fashionable, or whether he is flirting with nihilism.

God's Redemptive Justice

by Matthew Raley Ross Douthat made a trenchant observation in his New York Times column on Easter Sunday. "The doctrine of hell . . . assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murder can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so."

The idea of divine justice, that God renders a verdict on our choices and that a guilty verdict demands punishment, is being revised.

Many evangelicals are now saying that we must discard such old notions. They argue that God's every action is redemptive. Because the doctrine of eternal, conscious punishment in hell assumes a punitive wrath in God that has no redemptive motivation, the doctrine is inconsistent with God's nature.

Gregory Boyd (discussing annihilationism) says, "Consider that in the traditional view, the wicked are not being punished to learn something. There’s nothing remedial about their torment. Rather, God keeps them in existence for the sole purpose of having them experience pain."

Modernists made similar arguments more than a century ago. Old notions of justice as payback are barbaric, and Western civilization has outgrown such primitive ideas. Hell thus belongs to the lower rungs of humanity's evolution.

Is it the case that redemptive mercy is central to God's character, and does this characteristic invalidate the idea of hell?

Let's probe the word redemption. The Greek word is lutron, which refers to the ransom price for slaves or captives. There will be no release until the price is paid. Jesus, speaking about the key to his Lordship, says that he came to serve by giving his life as the redemption price for many (Mark 10.35-45).

Another word that expresses a similar idea is propitiation. Paul teaches that God made Christ's blood to be the "propitiation," the appeasement of God's justice, that sinners receive by faith (Romans 3.21-26). Paul also states the reason God made this appeasement in blood: "It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." That is, God's justice is demonstrated by his paying the price incurred by sin.

Redemptive mercy is indeed central to God's nature. But to call God's nature redemptive without reference to the purchase price is to talk nonsense. God does not do "remedial" sentences as a way to satisfy his justice. When he shows mercy to a sinner, he purchases the individual out of death into life.

In other words, Christ's death on the cross was redemptive because the death was entirely punitive. In God's plan the cross was not a sympathy-generating symbol or an attention-getting drama. It was the final propitiation of God's wrath. It paid the ransom.

No payment, no mercy. Full payment, full pardon.

The argument from God's mercy that many evangelicals are now using against the traditional doctrine of hell can also be used -- indeed, has been used -- to attack Christ's atonement for sin. Modernist theological liberals have long preached that the cross couldn't have been about something so primitive as payment. The cross is tragic blood-poetry to them.

I have never been impressed with modernism's treasured fantasy of cultural progress. Today's notion of remedial justice is founded on the lie that sin is not truly destructive of human life. Believing lies like this is not a sign of evolutionary refinement, but of degradation. Sin is destructive, and its deadly consequences cry out for recompense. The fact that we are all under sentence only makes the urgency of the cross more intense.

Douthat cites a contemporary story of sin, the fictional life of Tony Soprano, who rejects one opportunity after another to turn from his life of violence. "'The Sopranos' never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it."

Rob Bell's notorious question about whether Gandhi is in hell is fair enough, says Douthat. "But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?"

Forgiveness and Repentance

by Matthew Raley I got a question over Twitter following my recent post on forgiveness. How do you forgive someone who won't acknowledge doing wrong, or who never repents?

Three issues here.

1. We have a duty to forgive even those who will not acknowledge doing wrong. Jesus forgave those who crucified him while they were in the act of doing so (Luke 23.34). His death for sinners occurred when we were ungodly, not in response to our repentance (Romans 5.6-11). Jesus commands us to forgive as we have been forgiven (Matthew 6.14-15), extending the same release to others that we've gained ourselves.

2. Forgiveness is not a free pass for a sin without payment. Remember the transaction of release: upon payment, the debt no longer adheres to the debtor. The Scriptures tell us to release people from their sins on the strongest possible basis, Christ's payment for sin. Because of his death on the cross, Jesus Christ is now the judge (John 5.22-29).

So when I forgive someone who has wronged me, I am saying that Christ bought me out of my debts. Therefore I have no right to hold debts over another person (Matthew 18.23-35).

In this sense, my release of someone who has wronged me is a change of custody. "Whatever claim I have against this person I surrender to Christ. He is judge; I am not. He may do as He will."

3. Forgiveness is different from trust. Jesus forgives Peter for his betrayals, along with the other disciples (John 20.19-23). But he still goes through a process with Peter to reestablish the relationship (John 21.1-19).

There are times when we are called to forgive without the possibility of restoration. Those who will not turn from the sins that have harmed us may never be restored to the relationships we once had. In particular, this is true of those who have died without acknowledging their wrongs. In such cases, the matter is a transaction between my soul and Christ. "Lord, it is your right to deal with this person. For my part, I renounce whatever rights I may have because of your mercy to me."