Sunday, April 28, 2019

Knocking Over the Hurdles

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about how important it is not to put barriers to Christian faith in the way of the unsaved. I certainly don’t want to do that, and I’m very sure you don’t either.

Archaic language and holy jargon can be hurdles. Arguing about the age of the earth can be off-putting, as can paternalism, denominational conflicts, smugness, and a host of other far-too-common attitudes and practices that needn’t and shouldn’t get in the way of the knowledge of Christ.

These things are unnecessary, and it’s shameful to see someone shake his head and retreat into the darkness of ignorance and eternal loss over the bad manners and misplaced priorities of the messenger, over mere tradition, or over form.

Necessary Barriers

That said, not all barriers to faith are unnecessary. Some potential sources of stumbling actually serve a valid, God-designed purpose. When we attempt to knock over these sorts of hurdles for the benefit of those coming our way, we are asking for trouble, and will almost surely get it. They are designed to turn back the uncommitted, the dilettantes and the people who are interested for all the wrong reasons.

The foremost of these hurdles is repentance. Don’t get me wrong: feeling sorry for our sins and trying to do better contributes nothing to our salvation. It is Christ’s person and work that satisfy a holy God, not me or mine. But let’s not for a moment imagine that we can consciously smuggle into our new life in Christ any cherished habits or practices he plainly says he detests. Salvation is not mere intellectual assent to a series of propositions about Jesus Christ, but a life-transforming event. At Pentecost, stricken, guilty Israelites asked the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s answer started with “Repent …” Everything else follows from that.

If you find your sense of identity is so bound up with habits and practices the Bible declares to be sinful that you cannot imagine leaving them behind, then you are not yet ready to follow Christ. A gospel that doesn’t insist upon a changed life is no gospel at all. So-called Christians who welcome you as a brother or sister despite the fact that you continue to practice things God calls evil are enablers and liars. They are not your friends.

Repentance is a hurdle the church dare not remove from the path of the unsaved. You and I did not put the obligation to turn away from sin in their way; God did. It is not our business to question what God has done.

The next thing Peter told them was “Be baptized.” As in, in water, in a public place. Don’t think that’s not a hurdle for some. To publicly identify oneself as belonging to Christ is a critical part of being saved. Anyone who refuses to be baptized calls into question his or her profession of faith. Anyone who relies on something done to him as a child as a suitable replacement for believer’s baptism has not yet truly understood salvation.

Believer’s baptism is a hurdle the church dare not knock down, even in the interest of seeing more people “saved”. God put it there. To mess with it is incredibly presumptuous and self-destructive.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Yet another hurdle in the path of discipleship is the Christian doctrine of submission.

Submission to fellow believers whom God has placed over us is not a requirement for salvation, but it is absolutely characteristic of normal Christian life experience. Walking with Christ invariably involves accepting the authority structures he put in place for our good. If you cannot get your head around the idea of letting others — the apostlescivil authorities, elders, husbands and parents — have the final word when you disagree with them and sometimes even define your role in the home and in the Body of Christ for you, then you are bound to have major problems following Christ, and bound to find yourself repeatedly falling under his discipline. That can be more than a little uncomfortable.

Submission is a hurdle the church dare not remove from the path of new believers. God put it there too. It is not ours to remove, and it is a faithless gesture to abandon the symbols and practices that speak of submission in hope we will attract more people to Christ. We may, at least for a little while, but we will surely not attract the right kind of people, and we will not keep them as they mature.

“I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”

Another hurdle for some new believers is the simplicity of New Testament Christian faith. For them, the ideas of church and God are all mixed up with buildings, beauty, atmosphere, liturgy, ritual and religious routine. To tell them that clergy, stained glass windows and a Latin mass are unnecessary and unwelcome in the household of God is to rob them of everything they identify with church. It is as offensive to them as it was to tell first century Jews not to circumcise their children.

And yet we live in an era characterized not by law but by grace. To turn back to the trappings of pre-Christian ritualism is to have missed the point of Christ altogether. That doesn’t mean all professing Christians in high churches are really unsaved, but it does mean that we should not give an inch in proclaiming a faith uncluttered by religious rubble and focused entirely on the person of the Son of God. If that sort of worship appears spare and austere to the spiritual aesthete, well, so what? God put that hurdle in the way of newcomers. We would have to be fools indeed to think ourselves wiser than he.

Out of the Pews and Back into the World

Look, I get why Andy Stanley and other evangelicals are eager to throw out anything they find in scripture that they are convinced drives people out of the pews and back into the world. I too would love to see every man and woman who shows the slightest interest in Christianity brought in to the fellowship of believers. It’s their only chance. Who would deny them that? And if what keeps them from faith and full enjoyment of life in the Body of Christ is some meaningless, fuddy-duddy tradition or archaic, 19th century religious habits and language, then I’d be inclined to hurl overboard all the trappings of the last couple centuries of Western church life too.

Except we can’t. Some of those hurdles in their way are not ours to remove.

More than a few of these obstacles about which so many complain so bitterly were placed there by God, not man. God, who made Jesus himself a “stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” By all means, let’s move the others, and as quickly as we can. But let’s not confuse the clutter and detritus of centuries of human organization with a fence built and maintained by God against the incursion of false belief and cheap grace into his church.

If we do, we will deeply regret it.

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