Tuesday, August 11, 2009

And What About Christianity?

It's time to return to the subject I was working out before the last couple of posts about the Willow Creek Leadership Summit.

I've already surveyed historical conservatism, and looked at how the modern American variety differs from its ancestor. Of course, what I've been writing is in rather broad terms. There are conservatives who find themselves opposed to some of the extremes demonstrated by conservative talk radio hosts, former Alaskan governors, and others who seem to believe that moderation of any kind is impure and not to be tolerated. Conservatism, then, is a large tent, sheltering a variety of beliefs. Keep that in mind as I look at Christianity. The expanse of its tent makes that of conservatism look like a pup tent by comparison.

One theme that informs the entire story told in the Bible is the need for obedience to God the Father. In Genesis 22, Abraham is told by God to make a blood sacrifice of his son Isaac. At the last moment, the boy is spared because God provides a substitutionary sacrifice. From Genesis 22:18, we read God telling Abraham, "Because you have obeyed me, all the nations of the earth will pronounce blessings on one another using the name of your descendants." Incidentally, all Bible passages in this post are from the NET Bible First Edition.

Jesus himself reinforces this value of obedience when he says this in John 15:9-14, "Just as the Father has loved me, I have also loved you; remain in my love. If you obey my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete. My commandment is this – to love one another just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you."

The Law was one of the cornerstones of Jewish religious practice in Jesus' day. Some accused him of trying to overturn the Law. He rebuked them thusly, in Matthew 5:17-18, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place."

What does Jesus mean when he talks about everything taking place? One thought is that his work on the cross was that fulfillment and completing of everything. He says, "It is completed!" and dies in John 19:30, under a placard ordered by Pontius Pilate which says "Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews," in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. If this Roman governor saw Jesus as a king, even in jest, then we as Christians see him in the same way.

A king is one who represents his people, who leads them, and when necessary tells them what they must do. Once again we're faced with a requirement for obedience. The Decalogue in the Old Testament is not the Ten Suggestions; it's called the Ten Commandments for a very specific reason. These ten sayings are God's directions on how a god-fearing person is to conduct his or her life.

By the time of Jesus, however, it was painfully obvious that the Law in and of itself was not providing an instant dose of righteousness to those who claimed to be its greatest fans. Jesus was all over the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees. These were the folks who sat on the high Jewish council, who made a point of displaying publicly just how righteous they were. Jesus told a story about two men in the Temple, a Pharisee and a tax collector in Luke 18:10-14, "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: extortionists, unrighteous people, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ The tax collector, however, stood far off and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, be merciful to me, sinner that I am!’ I tell you that this man went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The point of this story, among other things, is to show that point-by-point obedience to the Law, something in which the Pharisee prided himself, is not sufficient. It was obvious by the time of Jesus that the Pharisees obeyed the letter of the Law, but not its spirit. If these religious leaders, so punctilious about measuring even their spices, failed to meet the demand for obedience that God placed on them, who was to be right with God? The apostle Peter and those around him lamented when confronted with this, “Then who can be saved?” He [Jesus] replied, “What is impossible for mere humans is possible for God.” (from Luke 18:26-28)

By what means can this "impossible" thing be done? The apostle Paul answers this vexing question in Romans 3:19-24, "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (which is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed – namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

Now the picture is getting clearer. It's by grace, the utterly free and utterly selfless gift of a sovereign God that anyone's shortcomings, failure to meet every stroke of every letter in the Law, can be forgiven. Jesus paid the price, he was the blood sacrifice that was necessary to pave the road to reconciliation between mankind and our Creator. The gift must be accepted, though, an invitation must be acknowledged, an open door must be walked through. We have a part to play in this reconciliation, and that's to acknowledge that Jesus paid the price for us.

The instant we accept that gift is when the process of reconciliation begins. The rest of our lives is spent releasing all our pent-up resentment, anger, frustration, and plain old sin to the loving God who sent his son to sacrifice himself, once for all. This new state of affairs doesn't mean we don't backslide, however. The selfishness remains, but now it has to deal with the presence of the absolute breath of God, the Holy Spirit, living within us. The battle within rages for all our days. Paul himself wrestled with this reality and talked about it in Romans 7:21-25, "So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." Another way to describe this struggle is that we work out our salvation (during the remainder of our lives) with fear and trembling, as in Philippians 2:12-13, "So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort – for the sake of his good pleasure – is God."

I've gone pretty deeply into the message of the Christian life as expressed and lived by the guy whose name it bears. The salient qualities I've tried to demonstrate are obedience, selflessness, forgiveness, grace, and the insufficiency of our own efforts to get right with God. There's a list of things we're supposed to do--we can't do them. We wrestle with God for control of our lives--even when we've accepted the gift of grace. We say we'll be there for Jesus--and like Peter, we turn our backs and run away. In other words, if it were strictly up to us, we'd be doomed.

I think this is probably more than enough to ponder in one post. In the next post, I'll try to show some of the gaps between what I've expounded on here and that attitude of mind we call modern American conservatism.

Stay tuned.

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