jasonbwatson

June 22, 2015

One Unchanging Message

Dave Furman wrote an article entitled “The Same Gospel” that appeared in the May 2015 issue of Tabletalk. Furman is the senior pastor of a church in the United Arab Emirates. Based on his location and the description in his article, it seems that his is a culturally diverse church. His comments are specifically targeted at the unique challenges of cross-cultural ministry, by which I mean different ethnic cultures and nationalities. However, in light of recent research and efforts by those who claim to have the most effective approaches for reaching those of different generations within the same culture (such as Gen X in the U.S.), the principles he addresses are just as applicable there.

Early in his article Furman writes,

The gospel changes lives. Though there are certainly cultural differences between the West and the East, we must resist the temptation to change the gospel. If we do, and people respond, then we have won people not just to a “variation” of the gospel, but to a false gospel, which is no gospel at all. Only the gospel of God concerning His Son is the good news. We want people to hear God’s truth and not a deceitful version of the message. The truth is that our sin against a holy God deserves death and God’s judgment. It is only through faith in Christ’s sacrifice for sinners that we will be saved.

I have heard and read a number of arguments for “presenting” the gospel in a way that fits within the culture in which it is being presented. I have always been reluctant of these approaches however because (1) in almost every instance “presenting it” is code for the message itself, and (2) if the message itself is changed it is necessarily different than the message the Bible contains. Something cannot be both different and the same; that is simply not possible. Even many relativists would agree that this is an impossibility. So, if changing parts of the Bible message is necessary to make it palatable to someone then we have a problem. Let me put it this way: I do not like pecans. It’s not that I do not care for them, I really do not like them. At all. How ridiculous would it be then for someone to tell me they would fix a pecan pie for me but leave out the pecans? Whatever I ended up with may well be tasty, but it would not be pecan pie. That is exactly what happens when we alter the gospel message in some way in order to “overcome” or “avoid” elements of the gospel message that are unpleasant, undesirable or even offensive.

I have heard of this working various ways. In some instances, the idea of Jesus being God’s Son is inconsistent with the beliefs and traditions of some cultures, so that wording is changed. In some places, the idea of a blood sacrifice or the idea of sin is objectionable, so that is tweaked or removed. The idea that we are fallen sinners is not a popular notion. It does not create warm fuzzies for anyone. The reality that we cannot work our way to heaven or earn forgiveness of our sins is inconsistent with what we teach and believe in almost every other area of our lives. Why not change the message a little bit to make it more appealing? Some megachurch pastors have said they will not talk about sin because it offends people. Imagine that! The Bible says it will be an offense; the gospel message will be a stumbling block. Whether it is refusing to talk about sin, changing the message to “culturally appropriate” or using bells and whistles (read lights, loud music and silly activities) to attract people to church, the reality is simply that such methods are nothing other than false advertisement. Okay, perhaps the lights, loud music and silly games are not exactly false advertisement, but when we use gimmicks to bring people in so that we can try to slip in the truth for a few minutes in between the stuff we really attracted them with, are we not operating under false pretenses?

Vacation Bible School and other activities designed to appeal to children can fall victim to this approach, too. There is nothing wrong with games, crafts, songs and skits in and of themselves. When those things became the primary focus of a VBS, though, the church is doing a disservice both to itself and to the children it is endeavoring to reach. If a church wants to offer a babysitting service or activity time or drama camp, no problem. Do that–and call it what it is. If a church wants to have a Vacation Bible School, though, the emphasis and most important part of the schedule need to deal with the Bible. (I have been a part of many VBS programs over the years, as a participant, a leader and as a parent of participants. Some of these out-of-the-box programs are much better than others in this regard. Answers in Genesis, for example, produces a program that is very “meaty” and ensures, when properly utilized, that children are receiving solid, in-depth instruction in the Bible. Generally speaking, though, I think VBS curriculum is like school curriculum. By that, I mean that the ultimate success of the instruction will depend far more on the teachers than on the materials being used).

Furman later writes, this:

There is no better message that we can share. And so there is no need to change it, distort it, rewrite it, add to it, or subtract from it. If you adjust the gospel, you destroy it. Gospel revision always equals gospel reversal. In a culture that is different from ours and even in dangerous contexts, why would we ever want to risk our lives to proclaim news that has no power unto salvation?

One of the most incredible and powerful evidences of the truth of the gospel message is the transformation that occurred in the lives of the followers of Christ after His resurrection. Where there had been fear, there was boldness. Where there had been cowardice, there was courage. Where there had been doubt, there was certainty. If we are going to go to the time, effort, trouble and expense of sharing a message–whether to children in our own church or to unreached people groups halfway around the world–shouldn’t we at least make sure that we are sharing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Why waste the time and effort for anything less?

Finally, not only would it be a foolish waste of time, effort and resources to share message that was less than the truth, it would be unauthorized. Here’s how Furman puts it:

Long ago, before there was television and the Internet, when a military had a big victory the king would send a herald into the town centers of the villages, and they would declare the good news and then run into the next town square proclaiming the victory. The herald had no ability to make the news but only to share what the king had declared. That’s what we are called to do: to take the same gospel as it is and proclaim the good news about what our King Jesus has already done.

May we resist all efforts to alter, abridge, tone down or otherwise manipulate the message that all have sinned, all need a Savior, and God has provided one through His Son–a Son who lived a perfect life, suffered a cruel and undeserved death, was buried, rose again three days later and lives now in heaven with God the Father. Wherever we go, wherever the gospel message may go, may it go in boldness and in truth, unapologetically and unashamedly.

August 29, 2014

Live It Out

Ravi Zacharias is, in my opinion, one of the wisest and most articulate Christian apologists on the planet. Rarely do I listen to him speak or read something that he wrote without being struck by something I want to be sure to remember and to try to apply in my own life.

Today, as I was flipping through some index cards on which I have written quotes that I find meaningful and worth reflecting on from time to time I was struck by the relationship between two consecutive cards in the stack. Maybe they have always been next to each other and it never struck me, or maybe they just ended up that way today, because some of the cards had come out of the clip in which I keep them and got rearranged. But I think that these two thoughts complement each other so well, and are such poignant reminders for all of us (and those of us who work with children specifically) that I want to share them with you.

The first is a quote from Ravi Zacharias. He says, “I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out.” The implications of that one sentence could fill pages–could actually probably fill books. The Bible talks clearly in so many passages about the importance of living out our faith. Professed belief is questionable if it does not impact the way in which the one making the profession lives his or her life. James, of course, says that believing in God is all well and good but is, for all intents and purposes, worthless in and of itself because even the demons believe. There must also be action, an out-flowing of the change that takes place inside.

I have heard on several occasions–and I am sure you have too–a political candidate say, “My faith will not interfere with my job,” or something along those lines. While I can perhaps appreciate the point the candidate is trying to make, particularly vis-a-vis the “keep religion out of the public sphere” atmosphere that dominates America today, I always find myself thinking in response, “Then it must not be much of a faith.” If someone can profess a religious faith and also profess that he or she can execute the duties of a political office without that faith having an influence on him or her then that faith is either completely meaningless or completely compartmentalized. (Actually, that’s redundant, isn’t it? A completely compartmentalized faith would be completely meaningless…) There are few positions that involve the influence and the potential impact of a political office; if one’s faith is not influential there, where would it be influential?

To the point that Zacharias is making, many people are completely turned off by those who profess the gospel message and therefore never even give the message itself a chance. When one who professes something lives in a manner completely inconsistent with that which is being confessed such a rejection is hardly surprising. This amounts to little more than “do as I say, not as I do,” and I think we all know how effective that is(n’t).

The index card right behind the one with the quote from Ravi Zacharias was one with this quote from Alison Thomas: “The most persuasive apologetic we can offer our children is not a series of carefully constructed verbal arguments, but a life beautifully lived close beside them.”

These two quotes are so complementary because they have the same idea at their roots. Zacharias’ point is that the gospel has the answers, but when those of us who claim it turn seekers off by the way we live our lives they will never give the gospel a chance. Thomas’ point is that coming up with the grandest instructions, arguments and rules in the world will matter little, if at all, if others–and in this case, children specifically–do not see the gospel demonstrated every day in our lives.

Neither Zacharias nor Thomas is suggesting we must be perfect–because none of us can. We will all stumble, make mistakes and “blow it” from time to time. That’s because we’re human. The frequency with which we do that should diminish over time as we grow in our relationship with the Lord but it will still happen. The question is, what do we do when that happens? Do we acknowledge it and repent? Do we apologize to those we may have hurt in the process? Or do we try to cover it up or excuse it away?

The inverse of Zacharias’ point is equally true, and is the point at which Thomas is getting. If we live a beautiful life alongside our children, one in which they see us growing, learning, struggling, messing up and handling it well, they will learn from us. They will ask questions. They will model what they have seen. The probability is high that they will embrace the faith themselves. Our words can be powerful teachers and testimonies, but only if the reinforce and echo what our actions are already teaching.

I suspect that if I were God I would not have chosen to entrust my message of love, redemption and forgiveness to the human race. Even if I had loved humans enough to offer them that, I would probably have done it in a manner that eliminated the possibility that humans could, through their own bone-headedness, become an obstacle to other humans wanting to receive or even hear my message. God, in His sovereignty, chose to give us mortals that responsibility…and what a responsibility it is! If we are going to profess a faith in Him, we better be sure to live it out.

November 15, 2013

A budding star?

Last week the Washington Post ran a story on Nadia Bolz-Weber entitled “Bolz-Weber’s liberal, foulmouthed articulation of Christianity speaks to fed-up believers.” You may have heard of Bolz-Weber; she wrote a New York Times bestseller entitled Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. I actually had not heard of her until a colleague showed by the Washington Post article. Unfortunately, what I learned from reading that article and then exploring a bit more online has left me no choice but to comment on Bolz-Weber’s–shall we say, unique–approach to Christianity. No doubt the title of the article mentioned above is enough to clue you in to the attitude she takes.

The Post article calls Bolz-Weber a “budding star for the liberal Christian set.” It describes her appearance this way: “Her 6-foot-1 frame is plastered with tattoos, her arms are sculpted by competitive weightlifting and, to show it all off, this pastor is wearing a tight tank top and jeans.” That is a unique appearance indeed for any pastor, male or female. And while I may not be a fan of a black tank top with clerical collar, Bolz-Weber’s appearance in and of itself probably would not have prompted me to blog about her.

The Post article provides a very quick recap of Bolz-Weber’s life thus far: “A quick tour through her 44 years doesn’t seem likely to wind up here. It includes teen rebellion against her family’s fundamentalist Christianity, a nose dive into drug and alcohol addiction, a lifestyle of sleeping around and a stint doing stand-up in a grungy Denver comedy club.” Going from that kind of life experience to graduating from seminary and pastoring a church would make a dynamic testimony to be sure. And apparently Bolz-Weber has that. Interestingly enough, the Post article also includes several statements that I found encouraging. For example: “The type of social liberals who typically fill the pews of mainline churches sometimes feel like outsiders among fellow liberals in their lives if they are truly believing Christians; if they are people who really experience Jesus and his resurrection, even if they can’t explain it scientifically; if they are people who want to hear words from the Apostles in church, not Thich Nhat Hanh or Barack Obama.” While I personally struggle to reconcile biblical Christianity with many of the positions espoused by social liberals, the point that church should be a place for people who are truly believing Christians and who actually want to hear the Bible preached, not some pop psychology drivel, encourages me.

The article goes on to state this: “In her body and her theology, Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity, one that merges the passion and life-changing fervor of evangelicalism with the commitment to inclusiveness and social justice of mainline Protestantism.” That is, for the most part, exactly the kind of merging I think is needed in the church today. The “life-changing fervor of evangelicalism” is what the Gospel is all about, and it must not be abandoned or ignored. At the same time, there is a very real need for Christians to work for social justice and serve the poor and live out their faith. I cannot embrace the statement above in its entirety since “inclusiveness” is a not-so-subtle reference to accepting homosexuality, and while homosexuals need to be loved and treated with dignity, the homosexual lifestyle cannot be accepted by anyone who believes that the Bible is the Word of God and means what it says.

But the article follows the statement above with this one: “She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.” Even putting the tattoos aside, the idea that someone can effectively represent and present the Gospel with a foul mouth is dumbfounding to me. Of her use of language generally not heard until late hours on television, let alone in church, Bolz-Weber says, “I don’t think church leaders should pretend to be something they’re not.” I would agree with that. I would also suggest, however, that deciding that being foul-mouthed is simply who she is instead of working to change that part of her life is not only inconsistent with Scripture but demonstrates a contradiction to what she also claims to believe–that the Gospel has life-changing power. God accepts and loves us as we are, but He does not expect us to stay that way. As we grow in relationship with Him, as we progress in sanctification, we should become less and less like the world and more and more like Christ. There is a reason that the language Bolz-Weber is known for using is called profanity–and that is because it is profane! That which is profane has no place in the life of a believer, much less in church.

The Post says Bolz-Weber’s message is this: “Forget what you’ve been told about the golden rule — God doesn’t love you more if you do good things, or if you believe certain things. God, she argues, offers you grace regardless of who you are or what you do.” Yes, God does offer grace, and no, God does not love anyone more for doing good things. But forget the golden rule? The golden rule, as it is commonly known, is a commandment from Jesus. This is exactly the way in which Christians are supposed to live. Living this way is how people will know we are Christians! When Jesus gave the golden rule he was turning the way the religious leaders of His day had taught completely upside down. Prior to Jesus, the teaching was not to do to others what you would not want them to do to you. That’s a good idea, of course, but it is a negative command, not a positive one. You could go through life never doing anything to anyone else that you would not want them to do to you and at the same time never doing anything nice, never performing any act of service, never demonstrating love to another person. I can go through life and never hit you upside the head, for example, but that is and of itself is not enough–that is not what Jesus has called us to do.

Continuing on through the Post article I again find moments of encouragement and times when I think “Right on!” Shortly thereafter, though, I am again confronted with times that make me think, “Are you serious?” For example: “Bolz-Weber says she abhors ‘spirituality,’ which she sees as a limp kind of self-improvement plan. She prefers a cranky, troublemaking and real God who at times of loss and pain doesn’t have the answers either.” Whoa! Hold on now… The God of the Bible is not cranky. Cranky implies moodiness, instability, emotions based on fluctuating feelings. God is none of those things. Yes, God gets angry, but He is angered by sin. He does not get angry because He did not get enough sleep or because He spilled His coffee or because he is stuck in traffic. And the God of the Bible is never without answers. Scripture makes it clear that He is omniscient–all knowing. If He knows all things than there can never be an answer He does not know. Surely there are times when He does not give us all the answers, but that is entirely different from Him not having them.

In a September’s issue of USC’s Religion Dispatches magazine Bolz-Weber was interviewed by Candace Chellew-Hodge, the founder/editor of an online magazine for GLBT Christians, pastor of a church in South Carolina, and author of a “Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians.” In the interview Bolz-Weber says that she was “allowed not to die in exchange for working for God. I’d have to become God’s bitch.” That word refers by definition, of course, to a female dog, but it is a slang word for a variety of things, including “a person who performs demeaning tasks for another; servant.” While being a servant of God is a good thing, the connotation of the word is entirely different from what the Bible has in mind when it describes serving God. Bolz-Weber, no doubt, uses the word for shock value. Later in the same interview, when discussing how God used worked through flawed people in the Bible, Bolz-Weber said, “All God’s favorite people are f_____d up.” Again, the word is slang, and even if Bolz-Weber’s basic message is on target the way in which she presents it is a turn off–it’s offensive. Dictionary.com says of that word, “For many people, the word is extremely vulgar, considered improper and taboo in all of its senses.” In other words, it is certainly not the way to present the Gospel!

Nadia Bolz-Weber has some valuable insights into Christianity and, at times, she is right on. Unfortunately, her desire to be “real” means that she is in many instances actually offensive herself. The message of the Gospel is an offense to the world; the Bible promises us that. Accordingly, there will be times when the messengers of the Gospel are offensive to the world, too. We must be careful, however, to limit our offense to the message, not to our careless handling of it. We must be careful not to confuse God’s acceptance of us for who we are with His acceptance of us staying there. And we must be extremely careful not to present the God of the Bible as someone that He is not.

June 6, 2012

Heard and Seen

In the June issue of Tabletalk magazine Ed Stetzer has an article entitled, “Preach the Gospel, and Since It’s Necessary, Use Words.” You may recognize the well-known saying Stetzer is addressing in his article; supposedly St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” At least that’s Stetzer’s rendering of it; I have seen it in a slightly different version, but that is irrelevant to this discussion. In the first paragraph of his essay Stetzer says that there are “two basic problems with this quote and its supposed origin. One, Francis never said it, and two, the quote is not biblical.”

I am not concerned with whether or not Francis said it. Stetzer says that according to Mark Galli there is no record of Francis ever having said it, and I reckon I’ll just take his word for it because, as I said, it really doesn’t matter. What I think does matter though is Stetzer’s assertion that the idea is not biblical. Before I share my thoughts on that, though, I think I should let Stetzer speak for himself (and quote Galli).

Stetzer cites Galli’s claim that the quote suits our culture well with this quote: “‘Preach the gospel, use words if necessary’ goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets, Jesus and Paul put on preaching. Of course, we want our actions to match our words as much as possible. But the gospel is a message, news about an event and a person upon which the history of the planet turns.” (I don’t know where Galli wrote this; Stetzer doesn’t say). Stetzer then goes on to say that the quote “gives an incomplete understanding of the gospel and how God saves sinners. Christians are quick to encourage each other to ‘live out the gospel,’ to ‘be the gospel’ to our neighbors, and even to ‘gospel each other.’ The missional impulse here is helpful, yet the gospel isn’t anything the Christian can live out, practice or become.”

Stetzer makes a bold claim when he asserts that the idea articulated in the quote in question is not biblical. After all, for a Christian, that is–or certainly should be–the deciding factor. If something is not biblical, that is synonymous with saying that it is wrong. So, I suppose I will need to respond with a bold claim of my own. While there are several words that come to mind, I’ll go with this one: ridiculous. For Ed Stetzer to suggest that preaching the gospel without words is not biblical is ridiculous. According to dictionary.com that means “causing or worthy of ridicule or derision; absurd; preposterous; laughable.”

Stetzer goes on to say that, “The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce.” I do not disagree with this, of course. The gospel–literally, the “good news”–is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to earth as a human, lived a sinless life, died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins (and yours), was buried, rose again three days later, was seen alive by thousands, ascended to heaven where He now sits at the right hand of the Father, and will come again some day. None of that is anything I can do, and it is, as Stetzer writes, something I, and every other believer, is called to announce.

The trouble comes in the fact that Stetzer seems to assume that the announcement has to be made by words. I–and whoever it was who said what has been attributed to Francis–do not agree. It is not enough for me to simply say I do not agree, though–or at least it should not be. Rather, let me explain to you why I do not agree, and provide biblical support for my position.

First, Paul, when writing to the church at Philippi, wrote, in 4:9, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things…” (ESV). I would, for the purposes of this discussion, emphasize that four-word phrase “and seen in me.” The message of the gospel requires a verbal announcement (words) but it also requires a demonstration–a life lived out in a manner that is consistent with the words that are proclaimed. And, I might add, it generally requires this both before and after the words. The actions are the book ends that support or hold up the words.

In the same letter, Paul encourages the believers to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ. Why? “[S]o that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit…” (Philippians 1:27, ESV). In other words, Paul told the believers to preach the gospel with their lives, and if they did so, he would hear about it. Actions would lead to words.

In Matthew 5 we read Jesus Himself teaching that actions are indeed an essential part of preaching the gospel. In verse 13 Jesus calls believers to be salt. That takes action. After all, salt is an actual thing; to borrow from and rearrange another passage of Scripture, it will not do you any good if you ask for salt and I say, “There you are, pretend your food has been salted.” Nope; that won’t work. You need me to give you real salt. In the next verse Jesus says that each believer is like a light, and that believers are not to hide their lights but to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Same thing–action required.

Another well-known quote I heard numerous times growing up but have no idea who originally said is, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The meaning is, of course, that if someone really believes the gospel it will be evident in the way he or she lives their life. Belief leads to action. While I agree with Stetzer that the gospel message needs to be proclaimed with words, I dare say that his assertion is far more dangerous than any danger he sees in the “live out the gospel” position. Why? Because there are many, many believers who preach, teach and live like the gospel message is nothing but words. What I mean is that I have heard many times–and likely you have, too–someone say, “If you’ll just say this prayer,” or “If you ask Jesus into your heart….” If this is news to you than I hate to disappoint, but there is no magic in saying the words. Words in and of themselves are just that–words. They do not mean anything; they are mere sounds that literally linger but a moment in the air. It is the meaning of the words that matters, and the meaning comes from whether or not I act in a way that indicates my belief in the words I speak.

Stetzer gives only one nod to the point I am trying to make in his article, and that comes in this statement: “While the process of making disciples involves more than verbal communication, and obviously the life of a disciple is proved counterfeit when it amounts to words alone, the most critical work that God has given to the church is to ‘proclaim the excellencies’ of our Savior.” Stetzer ends his article with four ways in which Christians should use words, and I do not disagree with any of them. Sadly, however, the words alone simply are not enough.

If I tell my wife I love her but my actions never demonstrate that love will she believe me? Not for long. Neither will anyone else. That’s why the words in and of themselves are not enough; the action is required. In fact, if you want to take Mr. Stetzer’s argument to its logical extreme, the very gospel he so wants Christians to proclaim with their words would not exist if words were all that was necessary.

What do I mean by that?

Well, if words were really the most important thing, God could have had His Son come to earth and tell everyone that He was the Son of God and that He could pay the penalty for their sins–and that if they would just believe Him their sins would be forgiven. If words were what mattered, Jesus did not have to die. Instead, I–and anyone else–could simply express my belief that Jesus could die, rise again, conquer sin, hell and the grave, and provide a way for my sins to be forgiven. But God is not concerned with whether or not I think Jesus could do that; He wants to know if I believe Jesus did do that.

So, Mr. Stetzer, I respectfully disagree with your premise. Not only do I disagree with your assertion that to preach the gospel always and when necessary to use words is not biblical, I would actually embrace the exact opposite argument–that to suggest that the gospel can be preached without actions is what is not biblical. The gospel demands action; it demands lives that are “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” So let us live lives that draw people to Christ, that open doors for words to be spoken, and that cause those outside of the church to ask about Jesus.

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