Catchy slogan, bad theology

not-perfect-just-forgivenYou’ve seen the t-shirts, ball caps, and bumper stickers:

“I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

It’s a catchy slogan. The problem is, it’s bad theology.

To be fair, who wouldn’t want to celebrate forgiveness? God’s pardon of our sins, after all, is at the heart of the Gospel (Romans 5:1, 1 John 1:9). This is known as justification. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, God has accepted us. When we welcome Christ into our lives, turning away from our sin, we are adopted; we become part of God’s family (John 1:12; Romans 8:15; Acts 3:19).

Where the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” mantra goes off the rails is in the first phrase: “I’m not perfect.” The problem is, Jesus himself called us to be perfect in love:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48, NIV).

Too often, people quote only v. 48, not taking into account the preceding verses. Jesus is not calling us to an absolute perfection. Such a state of affairs does not exist this side of the Second Coming. John Wesley (1703-91) correctly taught that we will always live with a thousand “infirmities,” which include forgetfulness, misunderstandings, good intentions gone wrong, and the like. But this does not exempt us from perfection in love. The Common English Bible catches this nuance well: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (v. 48).

Wesley always asked about his preachers: “Are you going on to perfection?” He longed for them to grow, for their love to become complete. Justification (forgiveness) is not the end, just the beginning! Sanctification (the ongoing process of cleansing) begins when God forgives us. The one who has experienced the lavish grace of Christ naturally wants to go deeper with God, what Peter calls growing in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). Like a healthy baby doesn’t stay a baby for long but progresses through life’s stages – toddler, child, teen, adult – so a new follower of Jesus grows up in his or her faith.

But let’s go back to the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” mantra. As currently promoted, it stunts the growth of Christians. A follower of Jesus who is growing up in their faith will naturally be filled more-and-more with God’s love (Ephesians 3:14-21). If being “forgiven but not perfect” becomes an excuse for not loving, for mistreating a fellow believer or one who has no profession of Christian faith, then the saying may become a weapon in the hands of the devil.

It might not be a catchy slogan, but a more accurate ball-cap would read:

“Are you forgiven, too? Let’s grow together.”

My love is not yet complete. Is yours? If not, then let’s toss aside slogans that stamp a misguided seal of approval on sin. Let’s spur each other on and refuse to excuse each other’s failings as if no other outcome is possible. There is victory in Jesus!

Incarnation and holiness

mangerIt’s a persistent theme across the centuries. Spirit is good; flesh is evil.

Some of the ancient Greek philosophers taught the exaltation of the soul and the denigration of the body. Plato extolled the immortal soul while Gnosticism later picked up the theme, infecting early Christianity with the notion that salvation is achieved only when the soul is liberated from the prison house of corrupt flesh. Augustine never escaped the lure of this view, implying the dirtiness of the body by teaching that original sin is passed down through the procreative act.

The negative Greek view of human flesh is what makes the reaction to Paul’s teaching in Acts 17 understandable. He met with a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosphers at Mars Hill in Athens (17:18). At first, they gave him a polite hearing as he attempted to build a bridge to them, speaking of the altar he had discovered which bore the inscription “to an unknown God” (v. 23). But then Paul lost his audience as quickly as he had gained it. What did he do wrong? He affirmed that God had raised Jesus from the dead (v. 31). Nothing bespeaks the value and goodness of the human body like God’s willingness to restore one to life. The philosophers would have none of it.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of the story. Long before Easter comes Christmas. While Easter is the feast of the resurrection, Christmas is the feast of the incarnation:

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, CEB).

The eternal, Triune God who had made all that is and pronounced it “good” (Genesis 1) tabernacles among us as Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23) thereby dignifying humble flesh. If the Gnostics were correct to believe that the pure spirit of divinity could never stoop to inhabit a corrupt human body, then the incarnation becomes a non-sense. Yet we are not Gnostics and should resist their false teaching. Christian orthodoxy affirms that whatever the disobedience of Adam and Eve may have done to the human condition, God still sees in our body something already very good, something worth saving and perfecting.

Christmas as the moment when the Word became flesh is the celebration of God’s good creation as symbolized by the tiny body of a baby boy. Our body was never meant to be viewed as a brake on our spiritual progress, as something that weighs down our escape from this world. Far from a hindrance to our relationship with God, the body – properly viewed – becomes an instrument of praise. For every follower of Christ, our body becomes the very temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Our body – what God already pronounced “supremely good” (Genesis 1:31, CEB) – we give back to the Lord so that it may be purified and set apart for sacred use (Romans 12:1-2). We worship God with our body. In so doing, our body becomes a vehicle the Lord can use for holy purposes.

The next time you are tempted to think of your body as an obstacle to fulfilling God’s mission in your life, remember that the eternal Christ never spurned a body. Instead, he saw the incarnation as necessary, a human body as essential to fulfilling his divine calling. This Christmas, let us thank God for the body he has given us, and with joy give our body back to him for his sacred use.

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Image credit: Tou Logoi Logou

 

Holiness as compassionate advocacy

wesley
John Wesley often spoke up for the poor and their squalid living conditions in 18th century England.

When asked the nature of holiness, John Wesley (1703-91) often pointed to Mark 12:28-31. All of the commandments are summed up in just two: Love God and love your neighbor. This love is the essence of holiness and it is the foundation of all compassion.

In recent years, we’ve spoken of compassionate evangelism. Now it is time to lift the banner of compassionate advocacy. Advocacy is concerned for social justice. As such, it is hardly a distraction from Gospel work. Rather, it is part-and-parcel of the church’s holistic Good News. In his article, “Social Justice in the Bible,” Dominik Markl notes:

Prophets such as Isaiah and Amos raise their voices on behalf of the poor and the marginalised, those belonging to the ‘weaker’ social groups. God himself prescribes a brotherly and sisterly social order in his Torah, and, in the same divine wisdom, Jesus develops a Christian ethics of love.

Those who are not followers of Christ will judge those of us who are by how we treat people who have nothing to offer in return. Right now on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation in North Dakota, a few thousand Native Americans – water protectors, as they call themselves – are peacefully resisting the construction of a pipeline across their land. Their concern is that the pipeline is to pass under the Missouri River, potentially fouling its waters with oil in case of a spill. This is hardly an imaginary threat. On July 1, 2011, such a spill polluted the Yellow Stone River. So muscular has been the response to the current standoff in North Dakota that Amnesty International is sending human rights observers.

Why should followers of Christ care? The simplest answer is that we should care about what Jesus cares about. Isaiah 42:1-4a (CEB) is a prophecy of the coming Messiah:

But here is my servant, the one I uphold; my chosen, who brings me delight. I’ve put my spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He won’t cry out or shout aloud or make his voice heard in public He won’t break a bruised reed; he won’t extinguish a faint wick, but he will surely bring justice. He won’t be extinguished or broken until he has established justice in the land.

As a nation, we’ve done a lousy job of co-existing with those who were here before our European forbearers arrived. We haven’t cared much for these “faint wicks” or about justice in our dealings. But what about the church, particularly the Wesleyan-holiness tradition that I call home? If we are about making Christlike disciples – and that is a crucial task – then we need to cast a broader vision of what being Christlike means. It is more than abstaining from sins that defile us; it is also about coming alongside the weak and the oppressed in their time of need, standing with them in their fiery trial like Jesus stood with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace (Daniel 4:25). How can we read a passage like Isaiah 42 then yawn as if nothing is happening in North Dakota?

Perhaps our inaction stems in part from few of us ever being water deprived, yet water security is a growing issue around the world. Drought can drastically alter how we view this precious gift. When I visited the city of Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in September 2015, they were suffering an extended drought. The missionaries with whom I stayed sometimes had to decide whether they would wash the dishes or wash themselves. Thankfully, we prayed for rain and God answered our prayer. I went away from that stay taking water a lot less for granted.

Neither do the Sioux take water for granted. They cannot drink oil nor bathe in it. You need water for that.

Some churches are speaking up. Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church issued a statement last August in support of the water protectors. In his statement, he noted the theological importance of water in Scripture, including it being the baptism symbol of new life in Christ. I commend Bishop Curry for speaking up, but it makes me wonder: As holiness people, where is our voice? If the essence of holiness is love of God and neighbor, then here is a clear-cut chance to show a historically mistreated people that we care. These are our neighbors. Where is our love?

I’m glad that God is raising up around the world a generation of believers for whom justice isses are Gospel issues. May they be patient with us who have been around a bit longer, we who have been slower to see that holiness is both personal and social. And once we’ve seen, may the Lord move us to compassionate advocacy.

Church of darkness or church of light?

squeers
Mr Squeers, the evil headmaster at Dotheboys

There are lessons for the church in unsuspecting places. Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is one such place.

The 2002 film version builds around a stark light/darkness dualism. Apart from Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas’ cold and wealthy but tightfisted uncle, runners-up for the malevolence trophy are Mr and Mrs Squeers, the heartless taskmasters of Dotheboys, a hellish boarding school for males. It is here that 19-year-old Nicholas takes a job as a teacher. Soon, he sees firsthand the wickedness of his superiors, especially in their abuse of their crippled boy servant, Smike.

During this part of the film, lighting is almost entirely in dark shades. Only young Nickleby shines like a lantern, becoming a benevolent savior to the captives of Dotheboys.

When Nicholas flees the wretched school, he takes Smike with him. As they leave the forest, day dawns and with it a splash of color and light. They join a troop of merry actors and eventually end up back in London. There, Nicholas meets the fair Madeline Bray. Though poor, she selflessly cares for her grumpy and abusive father. Her suffering ennobles her; she casts a pure light on all she meets.

hathaway
Madeline Bray falls for the noble Nicholas Nickleby.

But in day-to-day human existence, there is more than pure light or unmitigated darkness. There are shades of gray, a mixture of both good and evil even in the lives of individual Christians and in the life of the church. This is implied in Paul’s words to the Ephesians:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (Ephesians 5:8).

At first reading, it seems Paul is describing their current reality, that they already are “light in the Lord.” The context suggests otherwise. Verses 3-5 give a laundry list of sins they were to avoid, including coarse joking, greed, immorality, and idolatry. That Paul warns against them assumes that all was not well in the church at Ephesus. Likely, dark practices had crept in; sin cast ominous shadows over what would otherwise be the joyful lives of “children of light.”

Good, bad – light, dark. When it comes to the church, have we been both, acting sometimes like Nicholas and Madeline, other times like Ralph Nickleby and the Squeers?

Could it be this strange mixture in the church of good and bad confuses our world and prevents nonbelievers from fully considering the claims of the Gospel?

Let’s try to step into the shoes of a young adult who has no profession of Christian faith but sees how the church (and its members) operate in society. Would such a person tag the church as a “church of light,” righteous, compassionate and coming to the aid of the oppressed, or as a “church of darkness,” self-righteous, concerned mostly for its own needs and silent about the oppression of others?

well

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of light”?

  • digging wells in the developing world – Churches and missionary organizations have dotted the remotest parts of Africa with wells, giving a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). That kind of compassion makes me proud!
  • combating human trafficking – It may be a restavek in Haiti, or a young girl trapped as a sex worker in Bangkok or Dallas. Slavery exists today in various forms. The church is waking up to the problem and swinging into action.
  • recovery groups – The Celebrate Recovery movement continues to grow. Churches across the United States sponsor small accountability groups that allow people to break free from “hurts, hang-ups and habits,” from overeating to pornography addiction. Many churches sponsor divorce care groups, bring healing to those who have suffered a failed marriage. There is new life in Christ!

Why might others perceive us to be a “church of darkness”?

  • spending mostly on herself and her own comfort – Do we really need fancier sound and lighting equipment for worship times that last only 1-2 hours weekly? Does God really want us as a church to go “first class” (like prosperity preachers claim) or could we be having a greater impact if a larger percentage of our tithes/offerings received were funneled outward toward the needs of our local community?
uncle
Ralph Nickleby, self-absorbed speculator
  • silence when others mistreat minority groups  – In Nicholas Nickleby, Smike (who had run away) is recaptured. Mr Squeers ties him up and promises to cane him within an inch of his life. Nicholas looks on in anguish; what will he do? Will he passively allow the beating or will he intervene? In righteous anger, Nicholas shouts: “Stop! This must not go on.” He rushes forward, snatches the cane from Mr Squeers and beats him (but less than he deserved), then unties the hapless Smike. The Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of Protestant denominations correctly teach the historic view that God does not condone homosexual practice (Romans 1:18-31, 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Still, can this excuse our passiveness in the face of another caning? While rightly including commonsense provisions about which gender must use which public toilets, a recently minted Mississippi law jumped the rails, striking more broadly at LGBT individuals, permitting rental discrimination by landlords and allowing employers to fire employees solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. We’ve raised our voice against other injustices; why not now? Does not Christ’s love compel us as the church to speak up when any human being is grossly mistreated?

Nicholas Nickleby does well to portray characters who exemplify darkness and light. Where the film is less effective is showing that most people live their lives somewhere between those poles, in the shadow-land. Yet God calls us to holiness, to live according to a consistent, higher standard! Individually as followers of Christ and corporately as the people of God, we are called to forsake all that is dark and to live only as children of light. Where we have sometimes acted as a “church of darkness,” may God accept our repentance, filling us once again with his light, with unconditional love.

Is holiness our hope, or is Jesus? Reflections on a subtle idolatry

E-HOPE-CUSometimes God is gentle breezes and rainbows. Other times, the LORD is ferocious winds and thunder clouds. In Numbers 21, God is both.

The people were griping and complaining…again. They railed against God and Moses:

Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food! (Numbers 21:5, NIV).

Scripture never says in so many words that God was angry, but it’s a justified conclusion. Right after this complaint, the LORD sent venomous snakes into the camp and “many Israelites died” (v. 6).

Yet God – in steadfast love – relented. God commanded Moses: “Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (v. 8). So Moses made a bronze snake and did exactly what God instructed. Those who looked up at the bronze snake, though bitten by a serpent, were healed.

It’s an inspiring story to that point, so memorable that Jesus discerned in the story a parallel to his own crucifixion, a day when he would be lifted up like the bronze desert snake (John 3:14), a spiritual balm for all who look to him.

But the story of the people of Israel and the bronze snake has another  chapter. Fast forward hundreds of years. It is the time of King Hezekiah and this good servant of God is determined to purge the land and the Temple of idols. In 2 Kings 18:4 (NIV), we read:

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Neshutan).”

bronze snake

What happened? Sometime between Moses and Hezekiah, what had been intended as simply a helpful way to focus their attention on the God who heals had mutated into something magical. Instead of the people looking past a mere symbol to the awesome God behind the symbol, they made the bronze snake an object of their worship, an end in itself.  Sensitive to the voice of the LORD, the king knew it had to go.

“Holiness, Africa’s Hope” is a banner that hung outside a church office, but I wonder: Can holiness become like a bronze snake? Can even the phrase “Holiness Unto the Lord” subtly shift over time to become a magical saying, falsely comforting those who mouth it as if the words themselves have power? Are we with every good intention unwittingly directing people to trust in a religious experience – however meaningful and valid – and not the Saviour who is the source of that experience? Rather than saying “Holiness, Africa’s Hope,” would it not be more accurate and biblical to say: “Jesus, Africa’s Hope”? Nowhere in the New Testament is holiness described as our hope, yet Colossians 1:27 affirms:

“To them (the saints) God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Our hope is not holiness, but Jesus. Our hope is not a what, but a Who.

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Holiness? I choose the Jesus kind.

sanThere are two kinds of “holiness.” One looks like the scribes and Pharisees; the other looks like Jesus. I choose the Jesus kind.

If the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time lived today, they’d buy stock in hand sanitizer. Their holiness was a fragile one, a righteousness maintained only through vigilant separation. It was on the defensive. Sinners? Keep ’em at arm’s length. Otherwise, they feared being contaminated.

That which was unholy was always in danger of spoiling that which was holy.

Jesus would have nothing of it. He turned the equation around. The Jesus kind of holiness was no frail religion. Far from being defensive, it went on the offensive. Rather than fearing infection from “sinners,” it brought cleansing to sinners. Jesus insisted: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). On another occasion, he responded: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Mark 2:17). Lepers – those with the disfiguring skin disease – had to call out to one-and-all : “Unclean!” Yet Jesus reached out with a healing touch.

He who was holy sought out and cleansed those whom others called unholy.

Far from being himself “contaminated,” Jesus “infected” them with God’s cleanness! *

Pope Francis prays for a man with a disfiguring neurological condition.
Pope Francis touches  a man with a non-infectious but disfiguring neurological condition.

For followers of Christ, the implications are huge. God’s call to us is to “Be holy, as I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). But what does this mean? Christ’s actions clarify his Father’s intentions: Don’t worry about sin being catching. It’s holiness that is loving, winsome, contagious. Go spread it!

When talking about how holiness should impact our world, Jesus loved metaphors. He spoke of salt, light, and yeast (Matthew 5:13-14, 13:33). Salt preserves, light disperses darkness, and yeast makes a loaf of bread rise. What is striking about all three is that they must come into contact with what they would act upon in order to be effective. Salt must touch the meat, light must shine in darkness, and the baker must fold the yeast into the batch of dough. If the salt stays in the shaker, the light stays covered by a shade, or the yeast remains in the packet, then the meat will rot, the darkness will reign, and the dough won’t rise. What does that tell us about how we as followers of Christ are to interact with the world?

It’s inspiring reading on Facebook about people being salt, light, and yeast. Jacob Wright and his three siblings make up the band The Wright Brothers. From Tulsa, Oklahoma, Jacob lists himself as a “revivalist.” He’s a deep thinker, and often talks theology on his FaceBook page but also shares his faith wherever he goes. He wrote about he and some friends sharing their faith with Steve, who works at the porn shop. Now Steve has accepted their invitation to church. Jacob concluded: “No place is off limits for the kingdom to invade.”

Prudence is essential. A recovering alcoholic is not the person to evangelize in bars (see Galatians 6:1), but someone who isn’t tempted in that way may be the right one to sip only ginger ale, offer a listening ear and a ride home to someone who has had too much to drink. Others who need us may be as close as the neighborhood store. Katie Jones commented on Jacob’s page:

One night He just had us go to Walmart and encourage the employees. We prayed for two people but that was after they asked why in the world we would stop and tell a stranger they’re doing a great job at work. One was an elderly man who ended up getting his kidney healed and the other was a witch, who practically begged us to come back on her next scheduled day off.

That’s the kind of holiness I want, the Jesus kind, the kind that – with love as its only weapon – goes on the offensive. It’s not frail and defensive. Rather, it’s infectious. That kind of holiness will change the world.

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* I am indebted to Old Testament scholar Dwight Swanson for this insight into the difference between holiness in the Old Testament vs. in the Gospels.

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Image credits:

Sanitizer – UPMC My Health Matters

Pope with disfigured man – Imgur

The Optimism of Grace: An Address to the 2013 Graduates of the SNM

DSCN1087
Dr Dave Restrick, former Academic Dean of the SNM, interpreted into Portuguese.

Seminário Nazareno em Moçambique

30 November 2013

Opening remarks

Rev Margarida Langa, Rev José Moiane, members of the Board of Trustees, members of the administration and faculty, District Superintendents, Pastors, members of the Class of 2013, distinguished parents, friends and guests, all protocols observed –

It is my honor today to greet you in the strong name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. I am also happy to bring you greetings from Dr Filimao Chambo, Regional Director of the Church of the Nazarene, Africa Region.

We come together on this grand occasion to honor the hard work of our graduates. Our congratulations go to them and to their families. Graduates, you have persisted through a rigorous course of study. Despite temptations to quit, despite moments of discouragement, you stayed in the race. Today, you cross the finish line, and we salute you.

I.  Introduction: The Optimism of Grace

You are heading into a lifetime of professional ministry. Even as you officially launch into that sacred vocation, storm clouds are gathering. Jesus said in Matthew 24 that we will hear of wars and rumors of wars, and today we hear war drums in Mozambique that beat ever more loudly. At such a time when fear threatens to paralyze us, what word of comfort would God have His children hear?

The shadow of the cross fell ever more darkly across the little band of disciples gathered in the Upper Room. According to John 14:27, Jesus comforted his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (NIV).

Today, instead of sipping from the poisonous cup of fear, let us drink deeply from the cup of Christian faith. As followers of Christ who belong to the Nazarene family, we know that the holiness message we preach is the hope for Mozambique, for Africa, and for the world. What is this message? It is the optimism of grace. Let us reflect this morning on that optimistic grace in three commands:

 1) Let God’s grace transform you.

2) Let God’s grace transform the church.

3) Let God’s grace transform society.

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