Heaven isn’t enough

heavenWhy did Jesus die on the cross?

The tendency over the past 50 years in some Christian circles has been to say:

Jesus died on the cross so we could go to heaven.

The epitome of this approach was an evangelism strategy developed by the Reverend D. James Kennedy, pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In home visits, church members would ask prospects: “Do you know for sure that if you died tonight you would go to heaven?”

At Seminary, we learned this method in a slightly modified form. However, it has always seemed incomplete to those coming from a Wesleyan-Holiness perspective. In Matthew 28:16-20, the passage commonly called the “Great Commission,” Jesus outlined our mission not as helping people make sure their ticket is punched for the heavenly bus ride. Rather, it is a call for people to follow Jesus in the here-and-now:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20, NRSV).

Common Evangelical parlance says that we must “get saved.” Strangely, there is often little mention of this in relationship to following Jesus. An experience of praying a “sinner’s prayer” becomes the be-all and end-all of our interaction with individuals. Discipleship – the act of following Jesus and growing in holiness – seems to be relegated to an optional activity. To this, Gregory Boyd responds:

To place faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, therefore, is inseparable from the pledge to live faithfully as a disciple of Christ.

Even this needs more clarity, for a decision to “be saved” is a decision to turn our backs on wrongdoing and to follow Jesus together. The Great Commission is explicit at this point since disciples are to be baptized, a sign of our abandonment of evil ways and our initiation into the church. In meeting together we find strength and mutual encouragement. An ember separated from the fire soon grows cold,  but when left piled up with other embers keeps glowing and producing warmth. It is together that we can learn to obey all that Christ commanded, in love holding each other accountable.

But let’s return to the original question: Why did Jesus die on the cross?

We’ve seen so far that the answer “so that we could go to heaven” is inadequate in that is skips over the crucial notion of discipleship. It neglects to mention that our one day being with Jesus in heaven will be because we’ve followed him there first.

A better answer to the question would be:

Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.

houston

In the film, Apollo 13, the astronaut character played by Tom Hanks radios back to earth: “Houston, we have a problem.” In the same way, the Bible teaches that each of us has a problem, and that problem is sin. Sins are the evil actions we commit that estrange us from God. These acts of disobedience to God’s law (1 John 3:4) set us on a path that ultimately leads to our destruction (Romans 6:23). To follow the path of sin is to follow what Jesus called the “broad path” (Matthew 7:13). On the other hand, God gives us the power to choose to follow Christ. A decision to follow him is a decision – by God’s help – to turn away from the path of destruction and take another path, a narrow path that leads to life (Matthew 7:14).

When the angel appeared to Mary and told her that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and would bear a child, the angel told Mary what name to give the newborn. He was to be called Jesus, derived from the Hebrew word Yeshua (salvation). And what would Jesus’ mission on earth be? He would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, KJV).

These days some want to rewrite Matthew 1:21 to say that Jesus will save his people not from their sins but in their sins. It is like we believe that since Jesus saves me, it doesn’t matter how I live. John Wesley (1703-91) called this false doctrine antinomianism, or lawlessness. He saw it as the most widespread and deadly error of his day. Yet the writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus died in order for us to live transformed lives:

Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood (Hebrews 13:12, NRSV).

In this verse, to sanctify is to purify. God longs to make us like Jesus, to clean us up! Nina Gunter insists: “Grace does not leave us where it found us.” This is exactly the opposite of the slogans we hear, such as “I’m only human” or “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” You may have been a sinner, but that was then, this is now (1 Corinthians 6:11).  Now, we are followers of Jesus Christ, reconciled to God, adopted into God’s family! Jesus can change us; he can save us from our sin, or he is no Savior at all.

Church leaders are wringing their hands, wondering what they can do to make the church grow again. May I suggest sinning Christianity is the problem? Until we get to the place where we are sick of our sin and desperate for God’s holy love to fill us, we will have nothing of value to offer to people who look on and see only the same filth and absence of love that they can find 24/7 elsewhere.  If the church has a PR problem, it’s only because it has a sin problem. How can we offer deliverance if we ourselves are still enchained?

Heaven isn’t enough. Jesus died for more than to take us to heaven. He died so that as his true followers we can live new lives, transformed lives, lives characterized by the power of the Holy Spirit, spilling over with God’s holy love right here on earth. May the Lord renew His church both individually and corporately!

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Image credits

Staircase to heaven: picturesofheaven.net

Houston: wingclips.com

 

Trading in our goodbyes for hellos

goodbyeIt was December 5, 2005. Political storm clouds had been gathering for months, but on that day, the storm let loose. Word came from our superior that – due to insecurity in the country – we were to evacuate Haiti within 48 hours. Just one day before, we’d decorated the Christmas tree. Now, we quickly removed the ornaments, collapsing the tree and storing it in a closet. Hurriedly, we did laundry, packed our clothes, swept the house and headed to the airport.

So began an odyssey that took the four of us to Bethany, Oklahoma. Since that time, Bethany has been our psychological anchor, even if after three years there Amy and I physically returned to Africa, the continent of our earlier missionary service. One son already lives overseas, and the other will soon move to another state. Like a hot air balloon tethered to the ground, one-by-one, the slender ropes have once again been severed. The balloon is slowing rising again, this time to a new base back East with a sibling, a new driver’s license and address, a new touch-back point when we return from Africa briefly to the U.S. each year. Nine years after first coming to Oklahoma, it’s time for another goodbye.

Goodbyes were the stuff of life for Paul. In Acts 20:13-38, Paul was passing near Ephesus, his old pastorate where he’d spent three years pouring his life into new disciples. He was on his way to Jerusalem, so from Miletus he sent word to the elders in Ephesus to come to see him. After encouraging them to remain firm in the faith and warning them about dangers to the flock, Luke recounts the emotional scene:

When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship (20:36-38, NIV).

As Paul lamented that he would be absent from the Ephesians, so today we lament absence. Despite gadgets that connect us across the miles in real time via the Internet, there’s no substitute for sitting in the same room with friends and loved ones. Through the prophets, God had sent revelation to his people – a kind of virtual contact – yet it was inferior to the incarnation, Jesus coming in the flesh. It is only in the flesh that we can place a reassuring hand on a shoulder, wipe a tear, or give someone a hug. When distance separates us, like Paul, we grieve the loss.

The French language is rich when it comes to saying goodbye. In the musical, “The Sound of Music,” the children perform a goodnight song for the gathered party goers. In a clever bi-lingual play on words, Lisel chants: “Adieu, adieu, to yuh and yuh and yuh.” The word “adieu” (literally, “to God”) is well-chosen since her family would soon be secretly crossing the Alps from Austria to the safety of war time neutral Switzerland. She had no expectation to see them again, so she commended them into God’s hands. Yet the more common way to say goodbye is “au revoir,” meaning “until the re-sighting,” or more informally, “see you later.” The Scottish tune “Auld Lang Syne” – commonly sung at New Year’s Eve parties – is a celebration of times gone by. The French keep the tune, but substitute words with another meaning: “Ce n’est qu’un au revoir, mes frères” (“This is only a ‘see you later,’ my brothers. “) It looks forward, not backward.

Christian faith also looks forward. However sad goodbyes might be, hope changes the equation. The same gloomy Paul of Acts 19 is cheerier elsewhere, reminding the Corinthians that we are resurrection people:

If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:9, NIV).

To the Thessalonians, he paints a picture of Christ’s return when we shall be raised to new life (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). We are to “comfort each other with these words” (v. 18), the promise that we shall “be with the Lord forever” (v. 17).

Former missionary Linda Seaman has said:

Heaven is where we’ll trade in all our goodbyes for hellos.

I’ve gotten better at saying goodbyes. When moving, it’s healthy to visit one last time places that hold good memories and to wish farewell to friends. I spent a lot of time this week doing just that. Some friends I won’t see again during this life, but we despair not. The Christian hope sustains us.

Saying goodbye to Bethany, Oklahoma – a safe harbor after a storm – won’t be my last goodbye. There will be other goodbyes made to other people and places on this earthly journey. I’m glad that – for the Jesus follower – the journey ends with  heavenly hellos. Don’t miss the reunion!

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Image credit: Luna Starla blog

Heaven: Starting the song all over again

trumpetMr. Taylor was my first band conductor.

Conducting a 4th grade band takes a special kind of patience. Every child is new at his or her instrument, be it the flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, drums, or a dozen other things that make noise. And let’s face it, for 4th graders, about all we could was make noise. Like my brothers before me, I played the trumpet, or at least I tried.

Our first concert came at Christmas time. By then, all of us had a grand total of 3 months of experience, practicing twice per week in the band room. Parents and siblings gathered in the cafeteria and waited for us to file in. At last, all of us were in our seats and Mr. Taylor stepped up to the small platform, took his conductor’s baton, and raised his arms. We all snapped to attention and raised our instruments, ready to play.

I’m not sure what happened, but only about half of us began playing when his arms came down, signalling the start of the song. Were some still trying to spot where their families sat in the audience? Maybe others were still adjusting their music on the stand or simply daydreaming, but whatever the reason, it was a poor start.

Mr. Taylor then did something that surprised us. He suddenly stopped directing the song, tapping his baton several times on the music stand. We all ground to a halt, not knowing what to make of it all. Slowly, he turned around and addressed the audience:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had a very poor start to the song. Please forgive us. We can do better. Now, we are going to start all over again.”

And that is exactly what we did. I’m glad to report that the second time went much better, and when we were done, the audience applauded with gusto.

That’s what Heaven will be like. Heaven is New Creation. Heaven is God starting the song all over again.

The first time through, the song has been marred by sin, off-key. God knows we all can do better. One day, he will tap his baton on the music stand and we will all begin again.

John described it this way: :

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).

More and more of those who have played their instruments with me in the band are now silent, awaiting that second chance to perform. On that day, the band will once again assemble. All who have played before us will be present, gloriously resurrected by the Lord in new, durable bodies. What a grand reunion that will be as Jesus raises the baton and we start the song all over again!

How about you? Will you be in the band? This life is only the poor beginning to the song, but a new, better beginning is coming. Don’t miss out on it. Keep your instrument in-tune. What a performance that will be!

Dark Side of Destiny now available in print!

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The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-Examined (Wipf & Stock, 2013) by J. Gregory Crofford

I didn’t set out to write this book, but it was the book that had to be written.

A story might help. During my sophomore year at Eastern Nazarene College, I worked as a teller at a Boston Savings & Loan. Joel was my fellow-teller, and during slow times, I’d break out a book. One day, I was reading one of Hal Lindsay’s best-sellers about the end times. Joel flipped through the book, then asked a piercing question:

Do you believe all that stuff?

Joel was a non-believer, and his question got me thinking. What if Hal Lindsay was wrong? What if his kind of writing – while seemingly truthful – was making Christianity unattractive to those we are called to reach? So I went back to Scripture and did a re-study. What I found led me away from that kind of sensational view to post-millenialism, a more historic and balanced view that fits better with the whole tenor of what God’s mission is in this world, especially as related to the work of the Church and the Kingdom of God.

That same process happened for me when it comes to the traditional doctrine of Hell.

This time it was many Joels whose voices came across in the threaded comments of websites. They questioned what kind of God would make individuals suffer forever in the flames of Hell. It was a character question, and that got my attention. I took down from my shelf Four Views of Hell (Zondervan, 1992) and re-read the excellent essay by Clark Pinnock. It was a good summary of an alternate view, but I wanted to go deeper. The magisterial The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (3rd ed.; Wipf and Stock, 2011) by Edward Fudge made a convincing case from Scripture and answered some of the nagging exegetical questions that I’d had over the years.

Yet for all their merits, these kinds of works won’t be studied by the average layperson. So on this blog, bit by bit, I hammered out what later would become chapters to my new book, The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-Examined (Wipf & Stock, 2013). Here’s what the back cover says:

Discussion of Hell is hotter than ever. Yet for all the attention the topic has drawn, few are the resources that provide an overview of the major points in dispute without bogging down in detail.

The Dark Side of Destiny: Hell Re-examined is an excellent primer, yet goes beyond a mere description of options. Dr. Crofford weighs various views of Hell in the light of Scripture and finds them wanting. In the end, he champions a neglected view of last things that both responds better to the preponderance of biblical evidence and safeguards the character of God as equitable, holy, and loving.

With probing discussion questions at the end of short chapters, The Dark Side of Destiny is ideal for Bible studies, Sunday school classes, or small groups.

The book has only 90 pages. It’s short on purpose. I hope to develop a C.S. Lewis side to me, to bring theology into the streets.

ORDER INFORMATION

You can order the book for just over $ 10.00 directly through the Wipf & Stock website (click on the link). Or, if you prefer, it’s also available here on Amazon.com for $ 13.00. Within 3 months, it will be available as a Kindle e-book.

Some of you may have downloaded the book in its original self-published Kindle e-book format. In a minor revision, this version tightens up some of the arguments and corrects some typos. It also includes a new foreword by Edward William Fudge.

Let me know what you think, and spread the news!

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Image credit: Wipf & Stock