Sunday, December 25, 2011

Veiled in Flesh the Godhead See

Christmas is a time that brings mixed emotions to me. I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, and I never celebrated Christmas until I was 22. That first Christmas was awesome. I felt something akin to what Ebenezer Scrooge felt after his awakening in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. For the first time the joy, the peace, the reason for Christmas was very clear to me. Since then I have loved Christmas. But it is during Christmas that I also think of the family that is still lost in the Jehovah's Witness cult. Nearly all of my family is involved in that cult, and I feel so sad for them. I am trusting in God to rescue them from their servitude to that cult. It appears more and more that the Jehovah's Witness cult is crumbling. That, however, is the topic on another post.

What I want to talk about today is the theology of Christmas: the incarnation of Jesus. I want to do this using a portion of lyrics from Hark the Herald Angel Sings.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail incarnate Deity.

This lyric appears to be a distilled version of John 1:1-14; the Christmas story without the angels, the star, the magi, the shepherds, the manger, etc. This is the theology of Christmas. That Creator condescended and became His creation. I don’t know about you, but I find this jaw dropping! Why would God do this? Not only the condescension of incarnation, but the ultimate insult, allowing Himself to be nailed to a Roman cross some 33 years after the first Christmas! This is the miracle of Christmas. This is John’s Christmas story.

John tells in four simple words, “The Word became flesh”. In the most humble of surroundings of a barn, the Creator of heaven and earth entered time and space. This is what makes Christianity different from all other religions. Our God, in His effort to save His fallen creation, came to earth.

He did this because we can in no way establish a righteousness that is perfect. Our actions, our words and our thoughts are stained with sin. The Apostle Paul, in his magnum opus on the gospel of Jesus Christ, the book of Romans, quotes from the Old Testament with this stinging indictment on humanity:

There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one. Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:10-18, NET).

Now, I realize that some of you reading this may be shocked to find out that this is what the Bible actually says about you (please don’t trip when I say “you”, because I am in the same boat with you). Perhaps you attend a church that doesn’t teach that you are a sinner. Perhaps they teach you that you simply have made bad decisions, and that if you simply follow the principles they will educate you with you can live your best life now? Or perhaps the pastor of your church teaches that your problem is not sin, but damaged emotions? Or perhaps you have been taught that the reason Jesus came to earth was to teach you how to have health and wealth in this life? If the church you attend does not teach you that you are a sinner in need of a savior then they are robbing you, and your eternal soul is in danger (Matthew 23:15).

The reason that God condescended into flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth was to live the life that you could not live; a life of perfect obedience to God’s Law in action, word and thought. As an aside, Jesus did not accomplish this because he was devoted to prayer and fasting, as I once heard from the pulpit of a church. No, Jesus accomplished perfection because He was perfect. Jesus’ life was not an example for us to follow either. Jesus life was, no, is the life we receive credit for as a result of his resurrection (Romans 4:25). In return for His perfect life, Jesus was burdened with all our sin! It was on the cross that Jesus received the full punishment for our depravity. This punishment does not make salvation possible, but secures it for each and every person that believes.

God became flesh in order for Him to feel temptation. In the wilderness after his 40 day fast, from the desires of others, in the garden, and at other times Jesus felt temptation. Yet He was without sin (Hebrew 4:15). Yes, He knows everything about us. He faced temptation, stared it in the eye and vanquished it. He did this not as an example for his followers to emulate. He did not do it through the power of prayer and fasting. He did it because hidden in the flesh of Jesus was all the fullness of God (Colossians 2:9).

This is the theology of Christmas. It is simple, and to the point, but don’t let that fool you. The Gospel is simple. Yet within it there are some of the most profound and deep ideas that the human mind could never think up (2 Corinthians 2:9).

My message to you this Christmas is simple. Know who you are honoring today. He may have come the first time in a manger, but he will return again riding a warhorse and dressed in all-white. Why all-white? Because He’s not going to get bloody! So today, as you reflect on the birth of our Savior, do not just reflect on him as a baby in a manger, but as the Most High God wrapped in human flesh.

Hark! the herald angels sing, 
"Glory to the new born King, 
peace on earth, and mercy mild, 
God and sinners reconciled!" 
Joyful, all ye nations rise, 
join the triumph of the skies; 
with th' angelic host proclaim, 
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!" 

Hark! the herald angels sing, 
"Glory to the new born King!" 
Christ, by highest heaven adored; 
Christ, the everlasting Lord; 
late in time behold him come, 
offspring of a virgin's womb. 
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; 
hail th' incarnate Deity, 
pleased with us in flesh to dwell, 
Jesus, our Emmanuel. 

Hark! the herald angels sing, 
"Glory to the new born King!" 
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! 
Hail the Sun of Righteousness! 
Light and life to all he brings, 
risen with healing in his wings. 
Mild he lays his glory by, 
born that we no more may die, 
born to raise us from the earth, 
born to give us second birth. 
Hark! the herald angels sing, 
"Glory to the new born King!" 

Music by Felix Mendelssohn. Lyrics by Charles Wesley

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Death of a Foe

I woke up this morning to discover that the noted essayist and "New Atheist" Christopher Hitchens has died. I am not happy at his passing. In fact, I am very sad. God said that He takes no delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23). Therefore, I am not here to gloat over his death, but rather to reflect on the impact Mr. Hitchens, one of the so-called "Four Horseman of Atheism". A moniker he shared with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.

What was the impact of Mr. Hitchens? On me personally, I loved his later political views. He began as a Trotskyite, but later moved away from the Left and to the Right of the political spectrum. I loved the rhetorical flair that he often used to deliver his ideas. He was a master of rhetoric. He called former President of the United States, Bill Clinton, a rapist, Mother Teresa a fraud, and former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a war criminal.

Hitchens also had a less than chivalrous side. He left his pregnant first wife for another woman.

What vaulted Hitchens to worldwide fame was his response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. He and the other "New Atheists" tarred all religion with every evil act committed on the face of the earth. He wrote with a vicious pen that ripped into anyone that believed in God, as well as God himself.

I read his book God is Not Great. I love his style. Direct, to the point, and filled with biting sarcasm, which I love! That said, I do recall in chapter one of God is Not Great, Hitchens reminisces of his first inclinations towards atheism at the age of nine. Sadly, most of those inclinations that later became a full blown world view were never reflected upon, and refined.

Much of Hitchens railings against God, like the railings of the three other Horsemen (Dawkins, Harris & Dennett) are simply warmed over 19th century rationalistic attacks on Christianity by atheists of that age. These arguments have been summarily refuted, and continue to be. What made the "New Atheism" new, however, was the caustic manner in which they attacked religion. Saying that religion is not only unbelievable, but it was not even worthy of respect or tolerance.

My thoughts, however, are not on his writings or his style, but instead with his family. They lost a husband and a father. Their pain is real. I pray for them. I also pray that perhaps, before he died, Hitchens realized the futility and foolishness of denying his Maker, repented of his sin, and accepted the work of Jesus on the cross.  That is my hope, the reality may be opposite.

In either case, Christopher Hitchens is no longer an atheist. The writer of Hebrews, said, "...[I]t is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement" (English Standard Version). He has faced his judgement, for better or for worse, a judgement that I leave to God. Based on what Mr. Hitchens believed, however, leads me to believe that his judgement was for the worse. Consignment to an eternity in hell, where he will recieve full punishment for his sin against the God he so vociferously denied.

You might be saying to yourself, "What an intolerant thing to say!" Well, I ask, why would God allow a man that not only denied His existence, but HATED Him for even being a figment of the collective imaginations of humanity to spend eternity with Him?

The ultimate question, though, is not what happened to Christopher Hitchens, but rather what will happen to you when you die?

You see, you are a sinner. You have lied. If you have ever told one lie, no matter how small or how white, you are a liar. If you have looked at a man or a woman with sexually charged thoughts, then you have committed adultery. If you have gotten angry at another for no reason, then you have committed murder (Matthew 5:27-29).

You have committed idolatry. Worshiping other gods. No, I'm not talking about lighting candles to saints, or that. Rather, you have taking a good thing that God has created for your enjoyment, and made it an ultimate thing in your life! You have taken something or someone, and devoted yourself first and foremost to that someone or something to the exclusion of God! This is the essence of idolatry.

No amount of good performance can ever tip the scales of God's justice to your favor, let alone get them to even! You will never be able to satisfy God's wrath over your sin! There is only one work that can ever satisfy God's wrath over your sin, and that is the death of an absolutely perfect man. That man was Jesus of Nazareth. He lived a perfect life. A life that you should have lived. He never violated any aspect of God's law.  It was not just that he lived a perfect life, but he died a death that you should have died. A violent and bloody death on a Roman crucifix. On that cross, Jesus became sin by receiving the full wrath of God for sin.

That death, however, is not the end of the story. If Jesus simply paid the penalty to God for our sin, then we would be forgiven, but still under the power of sin. This is why the resurrection of Jesus is so important. SO important that Paul said in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 that if Jesus did not rise from the dead then we might as well, party on, for there is no hope. So three days after Jesus died, he rose from the dead and presented himself alive to his closest followers! Jesus' resurrection was so potent, that it not only convinced Jesus' closest followers, but also a hardened skeptic, James (how was Jesus' own brother), and a zealous persecutor of the church (Saul of Tarsus, who later became Paul). Not only these, but many others on the 2,000-plus years since then have had there lives radically changed by the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

I do not want to eulogize Christopher Hitchens. Rather, I want to say that here is a man that spent his whole life railing against God, and at the end of it, he may be facing a eternity feeling the full wrath of that very God he mocked, scorned and denied. I want to tell you, the reader, that you do not have to face that same eternity. Today, you have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and I implore you to choose life!

Christopher Hitchens will pay for his sin for eternity. I am deeply saddened by his death, because as the English Reformer John Bradford said, "There but by the grace of God go I!" It is only God's grace that kept me from a path similar to Hitchens'. You to can join us in Bradford's sentiment by accepting the free gift of God for salvation. I pray that you will accept it.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Religion of Him or the religion of him

You will notice, if you have an education that was not from a public school within the past twenty years that I have not capitalized the title of this post correctly. I have done so in order to make a point. You see the modern church has abandoned the Religion of Him for the religion of him, and in doing so has placed the souls of many in jeopardy.

First, let me define some terms. When I use religion, I don't mean religious acts designed to placate an angry God. no, when I use the term religion I mean a philosophy that tells one what to believe and how to live. Doesn't Christianity tell one what to believe and how to live? Further, when I use "Him", I am referring to Jesus, as he has been historically understood by the historic Christian faith. Lastly, when I refer to "him" I am referring to pastors that are exchanging their mission, vision, etc. for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So what is the Gospel of which I write? The Gospel is defined by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 15 (ESV):
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
This is the Gospel. The Good News. The thing that is ours to proclaim, not to edit.

What I want to write about today is men who exchange the Gospel for a vision, and the Savior for a founder. This is "the religion of him." In other words, exchanging the Religion of Him, for the religion of him. Understand that the use of the term vision came into vogue in the early 90s with the development of the "seeker sensitive" church. This term refers to the particular and subjective thought, burbling, or idea that motivated the pastor to found a church or movement.

So what is the "vision"? It comes in many forms. Usually in some pithy statement like "reaching the lost at any cost." What it really is, however, is law. It is do more, give more, follow these principles, etc. There is no rest, no trust, no grace, but only law. It is clearly the religion of him; the religion of the pastor. Many of these "vision-driven" churches are slavishly devoted to prayer, fasting and giving, and on the other hand pay lip service to God's word. This is demonstrated by whether or not the Bible is preached in a systematic and expositional manner. The "vision-driven" sermons are long in home-spun sentimentality and short on gospel truth.

Most of these "vision-driven" churches are mere fronts for "therapeutic moralistic deism". They teach that when you do for God, God is some how obligated to do for you. This is primarily taught to the church attenders through tithing principles. Many of these churches teach that your and your finances are under a curse if you do not tithe (pay 10% of your gross pay to the church). Now I have written on the tithe and why it is not applicable to the Christian on this blog in the past. Most of these churches over emphasize financial prosperity and health. These pastors teach their congregants to "lick the earth" as Blaise Pascal once said. In other words, these visionary pastors teach the congregants to get their sustenance from the world rather than from heaven.

The Religion of Him, by contrast, is not focused on what we can do for God, but on what He did for us. That everything we do to propitiate an angry God; a God that is rightfully angry at our sin. Jesus, on the cross, became us! He took on all of our sin, and the full measure of God's wrath came down upon Him on that Cross. He paid for every sin we have committed, and will ever commit has been atoned for on that cross. If you have placed your faith in that work, then there is no need for you to work in order to propitiate an angry God. The religion of him focuses on you and how you can live your best life now by applying various life principles.

Ultimately, the religion of him is about the pastor and what he has done, the miracles he performed, and his life spent for the church. The Religion of Him is about Jesus, His life, His work! Why would anyone want to exchange the Religion of Him for the religion of him? That is the question I leave you to answer.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Door Scratching God

Recently someone whom I have as a "friend" on my Facebook posted a quote from Ezra LaTurco, Director of Victory Outreach's West Coast Urban Training Center. The quote was as follows:
God can only do what you believe he can do.
The problem with this statement is that God's ability is not limited by our belief about what He can or cannot do, but by His nature and character. God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18); God can never send a flood to destroy all life on earth (Genesis 8:20-22); God cannot get tired (Isaiah 40:28); God cannot take on a task too hard for Him (Jeremiah 32:17); God cannot be prejudiced (Acts 10:34-35); God cannot remember the sins of those forgiven by Him (Isaiah 43:25). I would ask Mr. LaTurco, based on his statement, if I believe that God can do one or all of the above, then does that mean He has to perform them?

I'm sure that Mr. La Turco would categorically deny that form of reasoning. Why then would Mr. LaTurco make a statement like this? More than likely it was in the midst of some emotional fund-raising rant. Something that Victory Outreach is especially good at, but that is another post.

What this statement demonstrates is a core problem with word-faith/prosperity teaching. The key error with word-faith teaching is that it makes God the servant of man. God is the cat scratching at the door of the human heart begging to be let in. What is stopping Christians from having the abundant life is the fact that we have not allowed God to do the impossible for God! That if we gave our tithes and offerings (in faith) then God could enter our lives and bless us. Note the key, we (humans) have the ability to allow or prevent God from acting! Where in the Bible is this taught? I am just asking for one clear and in context Bible verse!

Ultimately, this statement is bunk, and should disqualify anyone who utters such piffle from standing behind a church pulpit. What is more frightening, is that Mr. LaTurco is leading young people! This sort of triteness is being taught to a generation of young men and women in the guise of Christian education! If I had college age children they would not be attending any Victory Outreach youth group if this is an example of what they would be taught.

I pray that Mr. LaTurco would repent of this error.