What does Luke 20:1-8 have to do with Miley Cyrus? Find out on today’s Tuesday Tea-ology!
Writing a couple days ago about the call of the gospel involved expressing that the gospel call is urgent. It matters whether or not people hear the message of Christ, and whether or not those who hear believe; it matters because there is judgment to come, and where you stand in the day of judgment depends entirely on whether or not you are in Christ.
This is the perennial scandal of the Christian faith. True Christianity will always be scandalous to the world, though different aspects of the faith will be scandalous in different times and places and cultures. But the exclusivity of the gospel message is a perennial scandal, because it stands against every worldly ideology and religion, and because it is at the irreducible core of the Christian message: eternal life is found in Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ alone. You have to place your faith in Him if you are to be saved.
This claim is denied not only by avowed secularists, but by some who claim to be Christians. I came upon the website of a liberal Episcopalian church in San Francisco, noteworthy (among other things) for how they use their sanctuary for a popular yoga program–the sentence “Colorful mats cover the labyrinth, the aisles and even the altar” has a certain resonance with 2 Kings 16. I saw that they had sermons online, audio and transcripts; I wanted to see what their preaching was like, but didn’t want to give it a lot of time. I needn’t have been concerned; my sampling suggests that, in keeping with typical liberal practice, their sermons range from fairly brief to very brief. Given their beliefs, brief is probably for the best.
So here is a sermon from “The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clements Young.” He’s the dean of the cathedral and has a Doctorate of Theology from Harvard, so no one can say I’ve chosen a straw man. His text is John 3:16-17…and if you say, ‘Why just through verse 17? …aha, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
John 3:16 is quite understandable a beloved passage, a one-verse encapsulation of the gospel. Dr. Young, in his short message, says a number of things, some of them good. But things get particularly suspicious about halfway through–manuscript page 3, that is–when he turns to examine Jesus’ reference to the bronze serpent, a story detailed in Numbers 21.
The Israelites were complaining against God, and the text says, “Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them” (Num. 21:6, NIV), but Dr. Young says “God allows poisonous snakes to come among them”; perhaps the change from God’s direct action to divine permission is unintentional. But stranger is Dr. Young’s assertion that “In both this exodus story and the Gospel of John sin is less a punishment from God than it is a self-destructive human choice.” Well, yes, the sin of the Israelites is a self-destructive choice–and if that’s all he meant, that’s one thing, but we’re still going to have to grapple with Romans 1–but the punishment from God is clearly present: they chose to grumble against God, but God sent the venomous snakes.
Dr. Young brings this back to John 3, which is good, and Jesus’ statement that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up” (Jn. 3:14). But this is Dr. Young’s comment:
“In this world which is poisoned by envy, greed, fear, betrayal and death – Jesus promises that we can be healed by experiencing him near to us in our suffering, and the hope that we have for the resurrection”.
Is that all Jesus promised, His nearness in our suffering? Why no mention of the atoning significance of His death upon the cross?
After this suspicious beating-about-the-bush about the wrath of God and atoning work of Christ, Dr. Young makes his last point quite clearly:
“My last point has to do with what my friend Matt Boulton calls the “anti-Gospel.” Gospel means good news and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is really good news for all people, not just Christians. It is the message that God does not condemn the world, but always reaches out to save us even when our choices have led us disastrously astray. But somehow many Christians warp Jesus’ words into an anti-gospel which is a message of contempt and exclusion.”
The Gospel, for Dr. Young, appears to be a message of universal salvation. Faith in Christ is not necessary, and those who say that it is are guilty of promoting “an anti-gospel which is a message of contempt and exclusion.” This is the rhetoric of the religious left, where ‘inclusion’ is good and ‘exclusion’ is bad, and where the other side is regarded as showing hatred or contempt. But how does this message square with the very text of Scripture being expounded? Dr. Young quotes John 3:16 in its entirety, so he has right there before him that the verse says “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It does not say that Christ gives life to everyone; it says He gives life to those who believe in Him.
How does Dr. Young deal with this? He doesn’t, really. He emphasizes that the text is saying this is a demonstration of the way God has shown His love:
“The Greek doesn’t mean to emphasize “how much” God loves us but instead shows us the character of God’s love, that God loves us in this way, through not even withholding his own son. The point is not that Jesus only saves the few who believe, but like the Israelites looking at the snake, everyone is healed by God through Jesus.”
Like the Israelites looking at the snake? But it wasn’t all of the Israelites who were healed by the bronze serpent–it was only those who looked at it. In the same way, it isn’t all people who are saved by Jesus, but only those who believe in Him. The parallel seems to work rather against Dr. Young than for him. Can he really justify such a shaky interpretation in the face of the clear teaching of the biblical text?
He can try. Here’s the clincher:
John confirms this interpretation and writes, “God did not send his son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (Jn. 3).
He’s quoting John 3:17, a wonderful verse about God’s love. Jesus came to save. God sent His Son to be our Savior. And, if this verse was all we had to work with, we might conclude that it teaches a universal salvation, regardless of whether people know Jesus or not.
But this verse doesn’t stand alone, and a basic principle of biblical interpretation is that verses must be interpreted in context. The verse before it, verse 16, says that it is those who believe who are saved. What about the verse that follows?
And this is why it is so interesting that Dr. Young stopped with verse 17. Now, I can’t read his mind. Maybe he forgot what verse 18 said. Maybe he just didn’t have time to bring it up. But it is awfully interesting that he didn’t mention the verse that says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (Jn. 3:18).
So we have an Old Testament parallel and two clear assertions that a response of faith is required in order to receive the life Christ offers, sandwiching the ambiguous verse that Dr. Young tries to use to nullify the clear message. It is overwhelmingly obvious that Dr. Young has misinterpreted the Scripture, and has done so in a way that shows either a remarkably careless disregard for the context or a deliberate desire to twist the message of the gospel.
He wants to do away with the exclusivity of the gospel. In the process, he has thrown out the urgency of the gospel, for a message of universal salvation is not a message that anyone needs to hear; and, if heard, it is a message that perfectly suits the individualistic self-determination of the (post)modern west, because it means that how you choose to live your life doesn’t really matter in the end.
Can Dr. Young’s own charge be reversed? Is he guilty of teaching an anti-gospel? I think so. Maybe he teaches that people should repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus, but he doesn’t preach that such is necessary in order to be forgiven and receive eternal life.
The true gospel is urgent, because it proclaims that God’s gracious offer of life is found exclusively in Jesus Christ, is received exclusively by faith in Jesus Christ. You need this gospel, and you need it now.
And you may have it, no matter who you are, no matter what you have done. Turn from your sins and place your trust in Jesus Christ, who died for your sins and rose from the dead to bring you life. Accept His mighty hand reaching down to draw you to Himself. Be cleansed, forgiven, made whole, adopted as a child of the Most High.
The time is now.
It is Sunday, which is for Christians the Lord’s Day, the weekly celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We rejoice, because we have the message of grace and redemption, the urgent and necessary offer of life to all who will receive it:
“Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”
(Isaiah 55:6-7, NIV)
This exhortation came from God through the lips of His prophet Isaiah long ago, and it is still relevant today. This is a time of crisis, but as such it is only a reminder that we are always in a time of crisis until we seek and find the Lord. He may be found, and He calls us to seek Him; this call is urgent, for there will come a judgment day–but today is the day of mercy, when the gospel is held out freely to all. God is near. Seek Him now.
Seeking God calls for repentance. That is too often absent from our prayers in a time like this. If we want to turn to the Lord, that necessarily involves turning away from evil. For “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
But what is the promise? What will we find when we turn to the Lord? Read again those wonderful words: “he will have mercy on them”, “he will freely pardon.” Here is the wonderful gospel, that sinners may receive the mercy of God, His pardon freely given.
For Jesus Christ died as a sacrifice for our sins, and rose again to give us life. Those who place their faith in Him find forgiveness full and free, healing, hope, and life forevermore.
I was struck by the tragic verisimilitude of a bit of poetry today:
“And ev’ry old cathedral that you enter / By then will be an Area Culture Centre. / Instead of nonsense about Death and Heaven / Lectures on civic duty will be given; / Eurhythmic classes dancing round the spire, / And economics courses in the choir.”
These lines come towards the end of John Betjeman’s satirical poem “The Town Clerk’s Views”, published sometime towards the mid-20th century.
But it is hardly satire, when you compare it to the (post)modern liberal vision for the church. The true church has a profoundly spiritual vision, with inescapable implications for life in this world. The ‘progressive’ church too often loses sight of the otherworldliness of Christianity and becomes utterly pre-occupied with social matters unmoored from the doctrines of sin, salvation, and eternity. As a result, even their social agenda comes to be guided by the pagan impulses of (post)modern culture.
It is tragic to see historic churches become little more than cultural centers, that teach not the atoning death and saving resurrection of Jesus Christ, but social justice (as defined by American culture) and yoga classes.
However, it is not (yet) “ev’ry old cathedral”. Many are the faithful churches that care for the vulnerable and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it is for each generation of believers to hold forth and pass on the faith, to keep the church the church, for the glory of God and the advancement of His kingdom.
After Jesus gave some teaching that was hard to accept, some of His followers abandoned Him. But, when Jesus asked the twelve disciples if they were going to leave Him, Peter gave this stirring answer of faith:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68, NIV).
Jesus has the words of eternal life. Jesus is the way to eternal life, the giver of life. The current crisis is a good reminder that life unending may be found, that forgiveness and freedom are offered–in Jesus Christ alone.
Faith in Christ means rejecting other supposed paths of forgiveness. We cannot gain forgiveness and life by rituals, and it cannot be given to us by anyone except God. So the difference between the true gospel and the teachings of the church of Rome is highlighted by the recent Roman Catholic “Decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary on the granting of special Indulgences to the faithful in the current pandemic, 20.03.2020“.
Here’s the meat of the proclamation:
The Plenary Indulgence is granted to the faithful suffering from Coronavirus, who are subject to quarantine by order of the health authority in hospitals or in their own homes if, with a spirit detached from any sin, they unite spiritually through the media to the celebration of Holy Mass, the recitation of the Holy Rosary, to the pious practice of the Way of the Cross or other forms of devotion, or if at least they will recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and a pious invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, offering this trial in a spirit of faith in God and charity towards their brothers and sisters, with the will to fulfil the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer according to the Holy Father’s intentions), as soon as possible.
Health care workers, family members and all those who, following the example of the Good Samaritan, exposing themselves to the risk of contagion, care for the sick of Coronavirus according to the words of the divine Redeemer: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15: 13), will obtain the same gift of the Plenary Indulgence under the same conditions.
This Apostolic Penitentiary also willingly grants a Plenary Indulgence under the same conditions on the occasion of the current world epidemic, also to those faithful who offer a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or Eucharistic adoration, or reading the Holy Scriptures for at least half an hour, or the recitation of the Holy Rosary, or the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross, or the recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, to implore from Almighty God the end of the epidemic, relief for those who are afflicted and eternal salvation for those whom the Lord has called to Himself.
The Church prays for those who find themselves unable to receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and of the Viaticum, entrusting each and every one to divine Mercy by virtue of the communion of saints and granting the faithful a Plenary Indulgence on the point of death, provided that they are duly disposed and have recited a few prayers during their lifetime (in this case the Church makes up for the three usual conditions required). For the attainment of this indulgence the use of the crucifix or the cross is recommended (cf. Enchiridion indulgentiarum, no.12).
The gist of it is that special plenary indulgences have been offered to Catholics suffering from COVID-19, caregivers, and others, if they meet the specified conditions.
An indulgence is not, strictly speaking, the ultimate forgiveness of sins; it is the removal of some portion of the ‘temporal punishment’ for sins–i.e., time spent in purgatory. A plenary indulgence is the removal of all of this ‘temporal punishment’ for sins. But this rather fine distinction doesn’t bear scrutiny. We’re still talking about divine punishment upon sinners, and the claim of the Roman Catholic church that such punishment can be rescinded by the church for those who follow the prescribed rituals.
It is a little like the hollow distinction by which the Roman church defends itself against the charge of idolatry in their adoration of Mary–they claim to be giving her hyperdulia, not latria, and aver the distinction justifies praying to Mary rather than to God.
Speaking of which, here is the benediction of the proclamation:
May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and of the Church, Health of the Sick and Help of Christians, our Advocate, help suffering humanity, saving us from the evil of this pandemic and obtaining for us every good necessary for our salvation and sanctification.
It is Jesus Christ who has, by His death and resurrection, won for us “every good necessary for our salvation and sanctification.” It is to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that we appeal for redemption, help, and healing. If Mary, that great woman of faith, could respond to those who invoke her, I think she would say something along the lines of, “Stop praying to me. Pray to God.”
There is no purgatory. The indulgence of the church of Rome will not help you. You have, instead, an Almighty Savior to whom you may go in every need. As the apostle John said, “the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14). Turn to Jesus Christ.
God is merciful and compassionate. Come to Him with your hurts, your needs, with every danger and trial. God sent His Son so that all who believe may be saved from sin and death. Go to Jesus.
The pandemic has called up a variety of responses, some of them more helpful than others. “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands” is sound advice. But is there a deeper message we might speak to this time of fear, danger, uncertainty, and death?
Actress Gal Gadot got together with a number of other celebrities, producing a little video that was promoted by major media channels. The idea of serenading the world in a time of crisis was a kind sentiment, and good for morale; the content of this particular serenade was awful. Gadot says that the time of isolation has got her feeling philosophical, and says that she heard of another serenade she heard, of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
Gadot then begins the song, which is picked up by numerous celebrities as described here. The song is a naïve humanist fantasy, imagining a world where the elimination of nations, private property, and religion leads to perfect unity and peace. The hypocrisy of a group of celebrities singing a song that contains the line “Imagine no possessions” is staggering, but not nearly so troubling as the rest of the vision for mankind they exhort us to imagine.
“Imagine there’s no heaven…No hell below us,” the song suggests, as though the loss of a sense of eternal destiny will encourage generosity and the brotherhood of man. “And no religion too” it later adds, as though the loss of transcendent morality and meaning will contribute to world peace. The song’s diagnosis of the human condition is profoundly flawed.
But, more importantly, it is a delusion. We are being asked to imagine a world that simply does not and cannot exist–a world without God and without hope. It is a comfort to know that Lennon’s vision can never be realized; even a global atheistic socialist state could do nothing about the fact that there is a heaven, there is a hell, and there is a God whether humans acknowledge Him or not.
In a time of crisis, we need to be reminded of the profound truths that define our existence in this life and in the life to come. That is what has been lacking in so much of our society’s response to the pandemic, and it is the opposite message of “Imagine.” On the contrary, this is not a time to daydream, but a time to wake up.
Memento Mori, says the ancient Christian tradition–remember that you have to die. A pandemic should serve to remind us that life is finite, and all too often short. Life is serious, and meaningful; but it is serious and meaningful because there is a life to come. There is a God above, there is a heaven and there is a hell.
We have had national calls to prayer, and that is very good; but they ought to be accompanied by national calls to repentance. It would be a tragedy if concern about the pandemic moves us to wash our hands, but not our hearts. It would be a travesty to pray one moment for God’s deliverance, and the next moment to sing “Imagine there’s no heaven…and no religion too.”
I am not a prophet, to claim that COVID-19 is God’s judgment on us for x sin. But every disease is a consequence of the fall, and a reminder that we live in a fallen world. And every such reminder urges us to wake up and look to the wellbeing of our souls and of the souls of others. God sent His Son to bear the sins of the world, to take away the curse and bring us the offer of eternal life by faith in Him. And God offers, to all who will receive the gift of life in Jesus Christ, a future more wonderful than we can possibly imagine.
A worldview’s understanding of cosmic origins implies an answer to that most pressing philosophical question, the question of meaning. What is the meaning of life? What is a meaningful use of my life? These are, in some sense, questions of where we are going, and the answer is informed by the answer to the question of where we came from.
If we came from nowhere, we are going nowhere. The only logical implication of naturalism is nihilism. If we are the products of blind chance destined for annihilation, it’s hard to see how anything we do with our lives can be meaningful in any real and transcendent chance. That is, we may bring comfort to ourselves and others for the moment, but all such good is destined for oblivion. Silence has the last word.
I think there are very few thorough-going nihilists; it’s simply too depressing a philosophy, and too hard to reconcile with what we experience of beauty and good and evil, too hard to square with our longing for eternity. Elite intellectuals may embrace philosophical nihilism, and their counterparts in the art world may revel in nonsense, but such ideology doesn’t trickle down well. I think that most naturalists, even the elites, decline to follow their beliefs about the cosmos to the unavoidable conclusion that there is no meaning, no right or wrong. Instead, there is an effort to argue for morality and meaning in spite of the denial of all transcendent reality—arguments never convincing but understandable because the alternative, within their worldview, is oblivion. Much more common is practical nihilism, which shows itself in our culture’s obsession with entertainment—the eagerness to be turned aside from meaningful uses of our time.
There is a much happier alternative, one that emerges naturally from a theistic worldview. If there is a God, then there is meaning. We have a purposeful beginning, and a purposeful destiny. What we do in this life matters, there really is good and evil, and silence is not the last word.
In fact, the revelation of the one true God gives us definite answers to this pressing question. We were created by a loving God in His own image and likeness. His character provides the transcendent standard of right and wrong. His boundless life is the foundation of eternity, and He offers an eternal destiny of life for those who receive, by the Holy Spirit, the gift of life that comes through faith in God the Son incarnate, Jesus Christ.
What we do in this moment is meaningful. How we spend our time matters, because our actions are pleasing or displeasing to the all-worthy God. Our choice to receive or reject the gift of life determines our eternal destiny. Our labors in this life are eternally significant, as we care for others who also have an eternal destiny and for God’s good creation.
Lord God Almighty, you are great beyond all description and worthy of all praise and worship. Infinite majesty, Triune mystery, Father-Spirit-Son, thrice-holy Three-in-One, all thoughts fail and words wilt in the attempt to describe your glory. Time cannot measure you, space cannot contain you, danger cannot threaten you, opposition cannot challenge you, evil cannot touch you—God forever praised! Be exalted in this day, and in your people, and in my heart—Amen.
O sacred Mystery,
God wonderful, God thrice-holy,
Unmeasured by infinity,
One God in Persons three,
Distinction in unity,
Come sanctify me,
God most mighty, God most free,
Shape me to your glory,
…or, “AOC, Theologian?”
From Christianheadlines.com, “AOC Says Religious Liberty Advocates Are ‘Weaponizing Scripture’ to ‘Justify Bigotry’ against LGBTQ Community“:
In a House Oversight Committee hearing to discuss LGBTQ rights, Ocasio-Cortez called out those who use Scripture to take away rights from gay people. She also compared religious freedom advocates to white supremacists.
“It’s very difficult to sit here and listen to arguments in the long history of this country of using Scripture and weaponizing and abusing Scripture to justify bigotry,” she said. “White supremacists have done it. Those who justified slavery did it. Those who fought against integration did it, and we’re seeing it today.
The most foundational problem in the congresswoman’s analysis is buying into the whole framework of the LGBTQ movement, in which matters of ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ are treated as fundamental identity characteristics on par with race and sex. That is the great con in this whole business, which has taken in all too many people. It is only through that ruse that activists are able to regard sensible people as bigots, to put advocating religious freedom in the same category as white supremacy, and to paint their sexual revolution as a civil rights movement.
But the most interesting problem in the congresswoman’s analysis is her understanding of religion, and particularly of the Bible. For her, religion would seem to be interpreted through the lens of secular liberation ideology; good religion, true religion, is as tolerant and non-judgmental (of liberal agendas) as she is. And the Scriptures are supposed to be a benign message of tolerance. For AOC, maintaining the Bible’s view of LGBTQ+ ideology, and wanting to live consistently with it, is somehow an abuse of Scripture.
Most interestingly, the congresswoman derides the use of Scripture in promoting sexual morality as “weaponizing” Scripture.
What? Weaponizing the sword of the Spirit?
“Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17, NIV).
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:12-13).
One cannot weaponize a sword. A sword is already a weapon. The Scriptures cut us to the heart, exposing all of our wickedness and sin. The Bible is not a feather that strokes our self-esteem. It is not a tolerant cushion that accepts and affirms us just as we are. It is a sword that cuts through all lies and convicts us of sin–greed, pride, hatred, sexual immorality, all of it. The Bible speaks of God’s holiness and our wickedness, it speaks of the wrath of God upon the ungodly, it tells us what is good for human flourishing, and it points us to the only means of forgiveness, wholeness, and life–Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Savior.
“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
The problem in American Christianity is not that we are weaponizing the sword of the Spirit, but that we are neglecting it. We take it out for our quiet time, and then put it back in its sheath, as though we could tackle our desperate social issues without it. We blunt its edges, as though our soft words were wiser than God’s pointed conviction; it must be admitted that the Bible speaks more directly and severely of sin than many a Christian–and many a pastor–is willing to do.
Christianity calls for conviction. God gave us a sword, and He expects us to wield it. The stakes are higher than whether or not religious liberty will be preserved in this nation for awhile yet. The eternal destinies of men and women are at stake.