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Friday, July 17, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Diluting the Faith

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, once said, “I consider that the chief dangers which confront the coming century will be: Religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, politics without God, and Heaven without Hell.”

Author Daniel Sweet believes American Christianity is already there. One of the problems Sweet identifies is the dilution of the faith almost exactly the way Booth described.

Tom: What do you think, IC? Any of Booth’s formulations ring true to you? I’d argue politics was always without God, but other than that …

Christianity Without Christ

Immanuel Can: The “Christianity without Christ” one hits hardest, I’m thinking. We’ve talked a bit already about the impossibility of having the former without the latter. But I doubt that keeps anyone from trying it.

Tom: I get the general idea because I think we’ve all been there at one time or another. It’s the very common notion that as long as you’re a little better than the next guy, or better in some way than some segment of Christendom, hopefully that’ll do it with God. With any luck you don’t have to break too much of a sweat …

IC: Yes. We all try to take our own temperature from that of the herd. There’s a natural feeling that if others are operating in certain ways or at a certain level, then so far as we are near to that — ideally, just slightly above it, by our own judgment — we are bound to be in a good zone.

Tom: Well, the principle certainly works in the employment world.

IC: Right. So we tend to feel God can’t be angry with all of us, and must be pleased with the majority of us. It’s maybe a natural intuition, but there’s no reason to think it’s true.

Walk Before Me

Tom: I think of God’s words to Abraham, “Walk before me, and be blameless”. Now of course there was a particular reason for Abraham to do so, in that God’s intention was to make a covenant with him and “multiply him” greatly, but I think we can safely infer that for God to bless any of us in a significant way, he’s looking for us to have a lifelong, daily, consciousness of his presence. His message is “walk before ME”, not “walk over there” or “behave yourself down among the Egyptians”. It’s relational.

For the Christian that relationship is specifically to the Lord Jesus, because it is through the Son that we approach the Father. How do we do that if we don’t cultivate the knowledge of and daily fellowship with the Son?

IC: Well, we don’t. We can’t. He who does not come to the Father by the Son does not come at all. And that’s as true of our daily activities as it is true of the moment of salvation: we have been saved only through him, and we are being regenerated only through him.

Tom: So, yeah, going through life with no particular attachment or commitment to the source of our life and the Head of the Church is certainly diluted Christianity, if in fact it is Christianity at all. I suspect that a lack of personal walk with Christ is most evident at home (where perhaps only a wife or husband really sees the extent of the problem), but it can be fairly obvious even in the church. Someone who never worships or prays publicly, or when they do, it’s all about us. Or it’s formulaic and repetitive, and lacks any freshness or joy. Or in private conversation, they drift away quickly from the sorts of subjects that energize those who really love the Lord.

The Inadequacy of “Church”

IC: This brings up a related issue: that “church” as we normally experience it today is entirely insufficient to service even our basic spiritual needs. The Sunday-at-Eleven thing is woefully inadequate as the battery powering our own spiritual lives. (And adding in one or two other services during the week will help us very little more.) So if we’re doing nothing at home — no daily personal reading, meditation or prayer, and no family devotions — then we’re going to be weak, confused, shallow and diluted for certain.

Tom: Agreed, and that’s not a defect in the design of the church (although it may be true that individual churches can be quite defective through veering off course from scripture in various ways). But our corporate life, while it ought to foster encouragement, edification, fellowship and all those necessary supports for the Christian walk (assuming our church is functioning properly) was never intended as a substitute for an ongoing personal, developing, deepening relationship with Christ. Such a relationship cannot be mediated by anyone else.

Some people look at the state of the church and say, “Oh, the problem is we don’t have enough meetings. We need to be together more.” No, the problem is what we are personally bringing to the meetings we already attend, which is not much.

IC: Yes. And the meetings themselves — a few hymns, a prayer, announcements, then a lecture for 45 minutes — that’s not the stuff of a meaningful, rich spiritual life. Now I’ve spoken more platform messages than most people, but I don’t believe they do much if you don’t already have a rich personal devotional life to prepare the soil. And the stuff that’s coming down off the platform these days is awfully thin gruel in most places. It’s hard to imagine that many people try to live off that.

Religion Without the Holy Spirit

Tom: Absolutely. Let’s move on a bit here: “Religion without the Holy Ghost”. Any thoughts on what Booth might mean here? I did a quick spot of research and noted that Booth and his wife were revivalists. Of the early Salvation Army, it is said their meetings were characterized by “shouting, lying prostrate on the ground, and leaping in the air … Also practised was ‘reveling on the floor in the glory’ and ‘jumping for Jesus’ ”.

So it may be that Mr. Booth was primarily looking for emotional pyrotechnics rather than the sorts of evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work displayed in the early church. I don’t see the apostle Paul putting a big premium on shouting, reveling and jumping.

IC: I wondered what he meant there. I’m not worried about our lack of shouting and jumping. I’m much more worried when we sing, “Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me”, or pray that “the Spirit would descend on this place”. It makes me think we’ve completely lost everything the Bible actually says about how the Spirit is given, how he resides in the saved, and what he does. We are indeed practicing “religion without the Holy Spirit” if that’s what we’re doing; so there’s a point there, but maybe not the one the author was trying to make.

Tom: Yes, I agree. If we do not understand what it means that the Holy Spirit dwells in us corporately as well as individually, we are unlikely to value other believers and our time together as we should. If we do not understand that his purpose is to draw attention to Christ rather than himself, we are bound to look for the wrong evidences of his presence among us. That certainly dilutes the faith.

Forgiveness Without Repentance

How about “forgiveness without repentance”: does that seem like a problem today?

IC: Yes, I think so. It’s just human nature to weigh your own sins lightly and the sins you perceive to be in others more heavily. Our own sins tend to seem excusable — not perhaps in need of repentance or even of notice — since we understand the rationale for them ourselves. That’s why the Law of Moses is still so key for Christians: it’s the way we know how to estimate sin correctly, and not as we are inclined to estimate it. The law is our “schoolmaster” or “tutor” to lead us the recognition of our need of Christ. But it won’t work if we don’t consult it.

Tom: It’s dawned on me recently what it means that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law”. It means more than I can explain here, but one of the things Paul tells the Galatians was that Christ came “when the fullness of time had come”; that is, when it was completely appropriate historically for him to do so. And that was when there was an entire nation, along with synagogues and proselytes all over the world, steeped in the Old Testament and anticipating Messiah, so that when the apostles established Jesus was the Christ, the gospel could spread it a way it could never have done before and never has since.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to disciple new believers today is that you have to teach them everything and even when you do, there is a terribly shoddy understanding of the Old Testament in the churches.

IC: Woeful. All our attempts to make pulpit ministry “more relevant” seem to have added up to the entire loss of our biblical literacy, as we stopped referring to the Old Testament for the most part. But the real problem is, again, that we are just not reading our Bibles, and are waiting for people to serve something up to us in a form we find palatable, or even as easy to digest as TV, video games and “tweets”. The Christian life cannot be hard, we think, or it’s not worth trying. So we just don’t read, pray or bother to think in a Christian way. What else do you think dilutes us, Tom?

Heaven Without Hell

Tom: Booth’s last point was “Heaven without Hell”. Although there are still some individual churches that acknowledge Hell from the platform, I’d say Christendom seems to be moving toward the sort of amorphous acquiescence to the reality of Hell that doesn’t do a lot about it, or really expect to.

IC: Yes. Maybe “Hell” is really the subject that is truly “too hot to handle” these days. Our society is one that longs to completely approve of anything a human being can want to do, without reservation. And Christians have mistaken this attitude for some kind of Christian virtue, and then have started to wonder why God would bother with “the bad place” if even we can manage to be tolerant of such things. It’s come to seem rather provincial of him.

Tom: Quite so, and I’d go further: I don’t think Booth anticipated we’d do something even worse than forget Hell, and that’s to forget Heaven. We are not taught about Heaven and most of us do not joyfully anticipate it. We are living easy, comfortable lives and we view any shortening to our lives as almost tragic. If Stephen had thought like that, he’d probably have lived to a ripe old age. We have forgotten that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain”.

Now THAT’s diluted Christianity.

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