Sola Scriptura: All Scripture is Breathed Out by God

Yesterday we began a 5-week series at White Fields in which we are looking at the 5 Solas of the Reformation: the slogans that the Reformers used to summarize their core beliefs:

  • Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
  • Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
  • Sole Fide (Faith Alone)
  • Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
  • Soli Deo Gloria (To the Glory of God Alone)

We started by looking at the first of these: Sola Scriptura.

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Sola Scriptura means: the Bible alone is our highest authority.

Martin Luther and the other Reformers found themselves in a situation, where – having read the Bible, they discovered that many practices and teachings of the church in their time were actually in direct opposition to the clear teaching of the Bible – particularly on the issues of absolution of sin and justification.

This is what led to Martin Luther’s famous statement at the Diet (Congress) of Worms:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against this knowledge. May God help me. Amen.

Sola Scriptura does not mean that we reject other sources of truth and wisdom, nor that we reject or ignore tradition. To do so would not only be foolish, but it would be ignorant of the fact that the very way that we got the canon of Holy Scriptures that we now have was in large part by God working through reason and tradition to transmit the Scriptures to us.

What Sola Scriptura means is that when it comes to what we believe and how we live, there is no higher voice, no greater authority than the Holy Scriptures, and everything must by judged by them.

So, if church councils say one thing, but the Bible says another: Who wins?  The Bible does. If our culture and society says one thing, but the Bible says something else, then who do we believe?  Who do we submit to?  The answer is: the Scriptures.

Did the New Testament Writers Know They Were Writing Scripture?

2 Timothy 3:16 says: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

What Scriptures are being referred to here?

Obviously it is referring to the Old Testament scriptures, but interestingly, this comes from 2 Timothy, the last letter which Paul wrote, at the end of his life. By this time — almost all of the books that we have in our New Testaments had already been written, and were being distributed amongst the Christians, to be read and studied in their churches.

So, when Paul says, “All Scripture” — he’s not just talking about the Old Testament, he’s also talking about the New Testament!

In the New Testament, what you find is that the Apostles understood that God was using them in their time to bring about a New Testament of Holy Scriptures, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Here are a few examples:

  • In 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter refers to the writings of Paul as “Scriptures”
  • In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul referred to his own message as “the word of God”
  • In 1 Timothy 5:18, Paul takes a quotation from the Gospel of Luke – and he calls it “Scripture” (Luke 10:7)
  • In some of his letters, Paul instructs the recipients to distribute his letters and have them read in the churches. (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27)

What Paul is telling Timothy in this text is to stick to the Scriptures, because they come from God, not from man.

The Bible is not only inspired in the sense that it is like a great work of art that we might say is “inspired” – but it is inspired in the greater sense, that the words it contains were breathed by God Himself!

What that means is that the Bible is no ordinary book — it is the very word of God to us, and therefore it alone is worthy to be the highest authority in our lives.

Wesley on Money

I’ve been reading a book on John Wesley’s theological method for my master’s course, and found an interesting section on his teachings and practice in regard to money.

Here’s an excerpt:

Wesley’s care for people extended beyond their spiritual well-being. In his time he was in the forefront of helping to alleviate the social ills of 18th-century England. His care for souls extended to the whole person, especially among the poor, the uneducated, the sick and the dispossessed – for example, slaves and prisoners.

The poor received special attention. He provided basic medical care and wrote simple medical manuals to help those who could not afford professional healthcare. At Kingswood school he set up a benevolent loan fund for people with immediate financial needs, the only stipulation being that they should repay the loan within three months.

Wesley preached what he practiced. Many sermons were intended to instruct on how to handle money. His best-known sermon dealing with money is entitled “The Use of Money.” In it Wesley exhorted Christians to “gain all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.” Wesley soon discovered that his followers were good at the first two principles, but ignored the third principle against surplus accumulation, which he considered the leading ill of Christian praxis. He was so concerned over the misuse of money and corresponding injustices that he published several sermons specifically warning about the spiritual danger to the person who does not give.

(Thorson, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral: a model of evangelical theology, 53-54)

Several stories are told about Wesley’s passion for good stewardship of money came about. First of all, he grew up in poverty. His father was a minister and John was one of 9 kids.

As a young man, Wesley was accepted into Oxford University. At Oxford, he had just finished paying for some pictures to decorate his room, when one of the maids came to his door. It was a cold day and she only had a threadbare gown to wear with no coat. He reached in his pocked to give her money to buy a coat, but he found that he had too little left after decorating his room. He asked himself, “Will thy Master say, ‘Well done, good and faithful steward’? O justice! O mercy! Are these pictures the blood of this poor maid?”

Starting in 1731, Wesley reportedly began limiting his expenses so he would have more that he could give away. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses were 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give away. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds.

Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away extra income. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but their standard of giving.

With increased income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but their standard of giving.

One year his income was a little over 1400 pounds. He lived on 30 pounds and gave away nearly 1400 pounds.

Wesley encouraged Christians to “gain all you can,” meaning that it is good to make a lot of money. However, he added that in gaining all you can, Christians must be careful not to damage their own souls, minds, or bodies, or the souls, minds, or bodies of anyone else. He prohibited gaining money through industries that took advantage of others, exploiting them or endangering them.

Wesley outlined four guidelines for spending one’s income:

  1. Provide things needful for yourself and your family (1 Timothy 5:8)
  2. Having food and raiment, let us be therewith content (1 Timothy 6:8)
  3. Provide things honest in the sight of all men (Romans 12:17) & Owe no many anything (Romans 13:8)
  4. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10)

I was challenged and encouraged by reading about Wesley’s attitudes and practices with money. I hope you are too.

Let’s not stop with only being inspired – but may we be moved to action! Is there a change that needs to be made in the way you view or handle money?

 

Thoughts on Friendship

This weekend I will be officiating two weddings for young couples from White Fields. For pre-marital counseling, one of the resources I use is Timothy and Kathy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. One of the great takeaways from this book is that the foundation for marriage is “spiritual friendship.” On the topic of friendship, the book quotes several other authors. Here are some highlights:

Our need for friends is not weakness, it’s part of our design

Since God is triune in nature (one God in three distinct persons), creating us in His own image (“Let us create man in our image.” – Genesis 1:26), is by nature designing us for relationships. It is for this reason, that when God saw Adam alone in the garden without a companion,  God declared that “it is not good that man should be alone, therefore I will create a companion suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18)

What this is implying is that “our intense relational capacity, created and given to us by God, was not fulfilled completely by our ‘vertical’ relationship with him. God designed us to need ‘horizontal’ relationships with other human beings. That is why even in paradise, loneliness was a terrible thing.” (The Meaning of Marriage, 120)

The sifting hand and the breath of kindness

Two characteristics of real friendship are 1) constancy and 2) transparency.

One writer described friendship in this way:

the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person – having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words, but pouring them all right out, just as they are, chaff and grain together; certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away. (Craik, A Life for a Life, 169)

Oh, that there were more of this!

Seeing the same truth

C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, writes about friendship and says that friendship happens when two people discover that they “see the same truth.”

Friendship, he points out, cannot be merely about itself. It, by nature, must be about something else, something that both people are committed to and passionate about besides one another.

“This is why,” Lewis says, “those pathetic people who simple ‘want friends’ can never make any.” Because there is nothing they want more than friends, but ironically, you cannot have friends unless you love something or see some truth that you are passionate about. “Those who have nothing can share nothing,” he points out, and concludes: “those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” (The Four Loves, ch. 4)

This is why the basis for Christian marriage is actually friendship: it is two people standing side by side, together with their eyes fixed on Jesus, and moving towards him. Anything less is an insufficient foundation.

Spiritual friendship, Keller concludes, is the greatest journey of all, because the horizon is so high and far, yet so sure – it is nothing less than “the day of Jesus Christ.” (The Meaning of Marriage, 127)

Who Needs Theology When You Can Have Jesus? You Do.

I ran across two videos online yesterday. The first was one I had seen before by Jefferson Bethke, called “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus,” and the other was by Thabiti Anyabwile called “Why is Theology Important?

I’ll be concise and say that I love the second video, but the first video doesn’t sit right with me.

I understand what Jefferson Bethke is getting at, but I think he is a bit misguided in his approach and his choice of words.

Kevin DeYoung has written a very good response to Bethke’s video and to statements like “God hates religion.” That response can be found here: Does Jesus Hate Religion?  Kinda, Sorta, Not Really

In think that many Christians have overplayed their hand when it comes to trying to make a hard dichotomy between Christianity and religion, or saying that people don’t need theology, all they need is Jesus. That’s a false dichotomy.

Throughout the Old Testament, God Himself established what could be called a “religious” system of rituals, symbols, rules and ceremonies – all of which pointed to Jesus and were then fulfilled by Jesus. In James 1:27 we are encouraged to practice “pure religion which is pleasing to God.” (James 1:27).

As I have written about extensively on this site, Christianity is unique compared to all religions of the world, which all share a common method of obtaining salvation: earning it. In this sense, it is right to say that Christianity can’t be bunched together with other world religions. Timothy Keller, in his writings has put it this way: that Christianity is neither religion nor irreligion, but something completely different: salvation by grace unto a relationship with God. I agree.

And yet, it would seem that what God hates isn’t religion per se, but bad religion which leads to self-righteousness and self-justification and any other practices which do not align with His heart. He chastised the Israelites in the Old Testament, not for being religious, but for distorting their religion for selfish purposes which did not align with His heart. The solution God gave them was not that they cast off religion, but that they get back to the heart of God.

It is important to remember that self-justification and self-righteousness don’t only come about through religion; there are plenty of non-religious ways that people seek to justify themselves and get a sense of self-righteousness, e.g. through morality, career, achievements, family, etc.  In fact, apart from Jesus every person is pursuing self-justification in one form or another, and most of these forms are not through religion.

One of the particular dangers of “bad religion” is that it gives people a false sense of security in being right with God. However the same could be said of an anti-religious stance which is just as condescending and self-righteous in its own right…

This is why theology is so important. Theology is not opposed to relationship with God, rather it is what Anselm of Canterbury called, “Faith seeking understanding.” If Christianity is about a relationship with God – and it is – then it is of utmost importance that we get to know this God for who He is through how He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. Furthermore, theology directly affects the way we live practically.

The fact is, like it or not: we are all theologians. You are a theologian, whether you think of yourself as one or not, because you have conceptions and ideas about God: who He is and what He is like. That makes you a theologian. Whether you are a good theologian or not is a different question, but the fact is that you are a theologian. Even atheists are theologians.

Check out this video of Thabiti Anyabwile talking about why theology is important:

What is Eid al-Adha?

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Carrying off an animal to be sacrificed during Eid al-Adha

Last night as my kids were getting ready for bed, they were looking at a calendar hanging on the wall, and they noticed that today is a holiday: Eid al-Adha. They asked me what it is; I knew it was an Islamic holiday, but I wasn’t exactly sure of the details, so I looked it up.

Eid al-Adha means “Feast of Sacrifice” in Arabic, and it comes at the end of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Eid al-Adha commemorates how Abraham’s faith was tested when he was asked by God to sacrifice his only son.

The Biblical story, found in Genesis 22, states that God tested Abraham’s faith by asking him to sacrifice “your son, your only son, whom you love,” and that this son was Isaac. In spite of that, Muslims believe that this son was not Isaac, but actually Ishmael. The Qur’an’s account of this story does not list the name of the son explicitly, but Muslims believe that it was Ishmael, not Isaac – because the Arabic people are descended from Ishmael, whereas the Jewish people are descended from Isaac. It is important to keep in mind that the Muslim traditions and the Qur’an came about much later (hundreds and in some cases, thousands of years) than the biblical texts.

Another difference between the Islamic version of this story and the Biblical one is the location where this takes place. In the Bible, this sacrifice took place on Mount Moriah, which is the future location of Jerusalem, and specifically the Temple. As such, it is the same hill upon which Jesus would later be crucified.

Islamic tradition states that during this time, Abraham was tempted by the devil not to obey God. For this reason, part of the Hajj includes the throwing of rocks at a three large columns in Mina, where it is believed that Abraham was tempted by the devil.

In the biblical account of the story, God provides a ram to be a substitute for Abraham’s son, to die in his place, so that he can live. This, particularly in light of the location on Mount Moriah, is an important foreshadowing to the biblical concept of substitutionary sacrifice, the greatest of which is Jesus – after whom no more sacrifices are to be offered, because no more sacrifices are needed to atone for sin or to facilitate fellowship with God, since Jesus has accomplished those things in their fullest form, forever.

Muslim tradition, on the other hand, states that as Abraham attempted to kill Ishmael, either the knife was turned over in his hand, or copper appeared on Ishmael to prevent Abraham from killing him, and then Abraham was told that he had fulfilled the command. No mention is made in the Qur’an of an animal replacing the son, only that he is replaced with a “great sacrifice.” This sacrifice was taken to be the institution of regular religious sacrifice, which is now practiced every year on Eid al-Adha, where Muslims around the world slaughter an animal to commemorate Abraham’s sacrifice and to remind themselves to obey the way of Allah.

However, there is some Islamic art which has historically shown Abraham sacrificing an animal in place of his son, like in the biblical account.

The greatest difference between Christianity and every other religion in the world, including Islam, is the belief about how one is saved, or justified (made right with God). Whereas every other religion and philosophy says that it is based on your obedience, your performance, your compliance and adherence to certain rules and ordinances, Christianity says that it is by the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on your behalf – and the story of Abraham and Isaac, and how God provided a substitute, is one of the greatest pictures of this salvation by grace in the Old Testament. Isaiah later speaks of how the Messiah will be slaughtered, like a lamb, and as a substitute for the people (Isaiah 53). Jesus is later referred to as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29).

Please join me in praying that especially now during Eid al-Adha, God would open the eyes of many Muslim people to see Jesus as the true and ultimate sacrifice, given by God on their behalf, so they can rest from their labors of trying to justify themselves, and receive justification and salvation as a free gift of His grace.

Mission & Mental Health

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

It was recommended to me by someone at White Fields, who had read the book and found a surprising correlation between something I had taught at church and the main thesis of the book.

The sermon was one I had taught in our Church Matters series on the topic of “Mission.” (Audio of that message here: “So That They May Have Joy”). My text was John 17:13-19, where Jesus prays over his disciples at the end of the last supper. In that prayer, he says that he was given a mission by the father, and now – in order that his disciples might have his joy in fullness – Jesus is giving them his mission.

The point is: there is a correlation between mission and joy. Mission is a prerequisite for joy. If you want to experience joy, you need to have a mission. Without a mission, you can’t have joy.

This truth can be seen in the fact that children, when they think about what they want to be when they grow up, they think of their future vocation in terms of mission: they dream not of being office workers, they dream of being teachers, police officers, firefighters, missionaries, astronauts, doctors, veterinarians, etc. In other words: jobs full of adventure and serving other people. Why? Because they find joy in that.

And yet, our society encourages us to look out for ourselves, be practical, don’t bother trying to “save the world” – just worry about yourself. And here’s the irony of that: the more that you focus on yourself, the less significant your life is in the big picture, and the less joy you will have.

This same point is made by Sebastian Junger in Tribe. His big idea, which he backs up with evidence throughout the book, is that hardship, rather than being bad for us, is actually good for us – in fact, it’s one of the best things that can possibly happen to a person or a society.

And yet, the whole focus of our society has been to make life more and more comfortable and free of hardship; the result of which has been an incredible rise in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and even violent crime. Times of crisis, such as terror attacks and natural disasters, indirectly have a positive affect on mental health in a society. The reason for this is that crisis causes people to band together and gives people a mission and a purpose to work towards and fight for, even sacrifice for. Without such a mission, people become unhealthy.

In other words: Junger is stating what the Bible has said for millennia: you need a mission. It’s a basic human requirement.

Here are some quotes from the book:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. (xvii)

According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as 8 times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities– like the United States– run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. (p. 20)

[Poorer people experience lower rates of depression.] The reason for this seems to be that poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. (p. 20 – 21)

Modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values (money, possessions, status) over intrinsic ones (sense of purpose, competence, moral/ethical/spiritual conviction), and as a result, mental health issues rise along with growing wealth. (p. 22)

Speaking of the extremely close bonds created by hardship in danger, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (p. 94)

The last time United States experienced a significant period of unity was briefly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years. The effect was particularly pronounced in New York City, where rates of violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disturbances dropped immediately in many countries, antisocial behavior is known to decline during wartime. New York suicide rate dropped by about 20% in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40%, and pharmacist saw no increase in the number of first-time patients filling prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. (p. 115-116)

I agree with Junger’s thesis and much (not all) of his analysis, but – unsurprisingly – he does not give a solution. The only part of Junger’s analysis which I disagree with is that he chalks everything up to human evolution, whereas I, as a Christian, believe that the need for mission is part of God’s design in creating us. That aside, the main idea of the book is absolutely correct – and the Bible has been teaching these things for millennia, AND giving the solution!

In fact, there are so many verses in the Bible which relate to this subject, that I only have space here for a few:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:9-12)

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Furthermore, in Christ, we have been given a mission – THE mission – which really matters and is worth living for and dying for and sacrificing for, and all of us are called to play a role in it – no matter what our vocation. It is the only mission which ultimately matters; it is the only mission which will ultimately save the world, and we have full confidence that it will succeed, because we’ve already been told how the story ends…

In order to have joy, you need a mission. Embrace Jesus and get engaged in his mission.

And a final thought: How did Jesus design his mission to be accomplished? Through the church. That’s one of the reasons why church matters… to God, to you, and to the world.

Racism is Not Merely a Matter of Ignorance

We had a great time taking church outside this past Sunday!

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One of the things I heard was that people in the nearby buildings came out and listened to the worship and the sermon from their balconies.

Every Sunday we invite people at White Fields to text or tweet us abut the sermon as a way of interacting. Someone sent this text message in response to this past Sunday’s sermon from the Church Matters series on the topic of the gospel:

Could you please share with me what you said about racism in the sermon today? I had never heard it put that way, and I found it very insightful.

It was during the section where I was talking about what the gospel does, that it gives you a new status before God.

Here’s that text from my notes:

The gospel transforms the way you think about yourself and about other people.
As long as you are still trying to justify yourself, you will always be looking for reasons why you are better than other people. That’s what the first guy in Jesus’ story (Luke 18:9-14) did. He prayed: “Thank you God, that I am not like other people! Thank you that I am better than other people, like this TAX COLLECTOR for example! I’m a much better person than He is!”

That kind of attitude leads to things like racism, prejudice and condescension.

Everyone wants to feel that they have value and worth, and one of the main ways that people try to find value and worth is by looking for ways that they can believe they have an edge up on others — so they can feel better about themselves. What they’re ultimately looking for is justification! And it makes you feel like you have value and worth if you can look at other people and say: I’m better than them!

This is where many people find their identity: in looking at other people and convincing themselves that they are superior for whatever reason.

But when you understand the gospel, you no longer have the need to prove yourself, to justify yourself or try to build an identity or a resume by which to make yourself acceptable. Because the message of the gospel is that God has justified you in Christ, and in Him, He has given you an identity and has accepted you. When you understand that on your own merits, you are completely bankrupt before God, and yet God loves you with a greater love than you could have ever dreamed of — not because you earned it or deserved it, but simply because of who HE is and because HE loves you — and through Jesus, He acted to make you His own, and to transform you into His child!

When you really understand the Gospel, it makes you, on the one hand, incredibly HUMBLE (because you recognize that you aren’t actually any better than anyone else) — and at the same time it makes you incredibly CONFIDENT! (Because you know that you are completely loved and accepted by the one being in the universe whose opinion really matters! Because in Christ, God looks at you and says: You are my child, in whom I am well pleased.

And therefore, the gospel enables you to be incredibly confident — without being the least bit condescending towards others, because you no longer derive your value and worth from being better than other people, but from God’s love for you and the identity He has given you in Christ.

I actually wrote this before the events that took place on Saturday in Charlottesville, VA. I am deeply grieved by what happened there and my heart goes out to the family of Heather Heyer, the woman who died, as well as to the people who were injured and their families.

Here’s the thing we need to understand as Christians: Many people in our culture say that racism is a matter of ignorance. “If people were only less ignorant,” they argue, “then they wouldn’t be racist.” Yet what the Bible teaches is that racism isn’t merely a matter of ignorance, it is a matter of the heart.

We saw this very thing in our recent study of Jonah. Jonah was racist, and he assumed that God shared his views, and he was shocked to find out that God did not. Jonah’s problem was not ignorance; it was a heart issue! He did not share the heart of God, which was love for all people of all nations.

That racism is not merely a matter of ignorance should be clear from the fact that the majority racist movements of the twentieth century (Fascism and Naziism) took place in some of the most highly educated countries in the world. The German Nazis were not ignorant, and yet they were very racist. Racism isn’t merely a matter of ignorance, it’s a matter of the heart.

Racism is a sin which the gospel reveals and heals. Racism, as I said on Sunday, is a means of self-justification. Racism is completely incompatible with Christianity. God loves the world, and so should we. Jesus died to save people of every tribe, tongue and nation and to make them all ONE in Him.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:11)

Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1

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Last week a friend of mine sent me a video in which Richard Dawkins was interviewed, and in the interview he stated his view that religion as a whole is eventually destined to die out. Then he sent me another article from The Guardian (UK), about how there is a correlation between the increase of secularism and standards of living around the world.

It seems as if from every angle, people are claiming that Christianity is in decline and it is simply a matter of time until all religion dies out in the world. The assumption is that as we become more “enlightened,” people will cast off their “superstitious” religious beliefs and everyone will be secular, AKA atheist – or atheism’s more friendly cousin: agnostic.

Many people take these claims as foregone conclusions, but is this really the case? Is religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in decline?

The answer is: yes and no. The answer to those questions depends on 1) what kind of religion (and what kind of Christianity) we are talking about, and 2) which parts of the world we are talking about.

There are a few very important factors to keep in mind. We will look at the first one today, and others tomorrow.

1. Inherited Religion is in Decline, but Chosen Faith is on the Rise

This is something we experienced as missionaries in Europe. While it is true that Europe is full of empty churches and has high rates of people who identify as atheists, we also experienced great openness to the gospel, and we saw many people come to faith in Christ and churches planted.

What we are seeing is the decline of inherited religion, but at the same time there is still an increase in chosen faith. There is certainly a down-side to this, in that people who assume inherited Christianity will still be exposed to Christian teaching and the Bible, and such exposure may very well lead to real, personal faith at some point in their life. In a situation where Christian faith is inherited, Christianity is seen in a positive light, as is going to church and reading the Bible. This perception can make it easier for a person to become a Christian than if one is raised in an environment where Christianity is portrayed negatively.

However, from a Christian perspective, there are also benefits of the decline of inherited religion. For example, as many people from Muslim background come to the West, many of them, rather than assume their parents’ religion, are open to the idea that their faith is something they must choose for themselves.

Furthermore, inherited religion, including Christianity, can leave people with a false sense of security, that they are guaranteed salvation or that they are right with God, even when in fact they are not. This is one of the great themes of the Book of Deuteronomy – as Moses speaks to the new generation who will enter Canaan, and he emphasizes to them that they must have their own faith; it is not enough that the Lord was their parents’ God, He must be their God as well.

This article by Timothy Keller for The Gospel Coalition addresses this topic very well: Inherited Faith is Dying. Chosen Faith is Not.

Here’s an excerpt:

[At a recent conference in Paris,] Grace Davie, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Exeter in Great Britain pointed out that nominal or inherited Christianity is declining. However, she noted (against all expectations) that new movements of Christian faith are growing in Western cities.
The growing Christian churches are evangelical and Pentecostal, and they emphasize the biblical call to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15) and the biblical teaching that we stand or fall on our own faith, not the choices of our family or community (Ezek. 18). These churches teach that vicarious, formal religion isn’t enough; there must be a radical, inward conversion (Deut. 30:6Jer. 9:25Rom. 2:29). Christianity that foregrounds these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith can reach many contemporary people—and it can reach cities.

Tomorrow we will look at the statistics which point to the fact that secularism is actually poised to decline in coming decades, whereas religious belief, and Christianity in particular is set to increase worldwide. Stay tuned!

Want to Join a Korean Doomsday Cult?

This past Sunday I received a message from someone who attends White Fields. She said that she was in Alta Park in Longmont when a couple approached her who were from the Worldwide Mission Society Church of God, seeking to evangelize her.

When she told them that she is a Christian, they questioned her salvation and told her that Jesus had claimed that he would come again as a man, give his church a new name, and that in order to be saved, one needs to be part of this church, and adhere to several “new covenant requirements” including keeping all of the feasts mentioned in the Book of Leviticus.

They mentioned that they belonged to a branch of this church which had recently started in Boulder, and that they were planning to start a Longmont branch soon as well.

I had never heard of this group before, so I looked them up. Turns out they have some pretty crazy doctrines, which, unsurprisingly, they kept quiet about in this interaction in the park.

Who are they and what do they believe?

The Worldwide Mission Society Church of God (WMSCOG) was founded by Ahn Sahng-Hong in South Korea in 1964. He was a long-time Seventh-day Adventist, until he split off to establish his own religion.

They believe in God the Father and God the Mother, and they believe that their founder, Ahn Sahng-Hong (deceased) was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ (this is what the people in Alta Park were talking about when they said Jesus came back as a man and gave his church a new name), and that his wife (still alive) is the incarnation of God the Mother.

Ahn Sahng-Hong’s wife, Jang Gil-ja, is not only considered to be divine as God the Mother, but she is also known as “The Bride of Christ” – because she was married to Ahn Sahng-Hong, whom they believe to be the reincarnation of Christ.

Along with referring to him as “Christ Ahn Sahng-Hong,” they also believe that he is the Holy Spirit and they baptize and pray in the name of the Father, Son and Ahn Sahng-Hong.

I just threw up a little bit in my mouth as I wrote that…

They teach that all people were originally created as angels in Heaven, but then sinned against God and were sent to Earth as a second chance to return to God. The only way for humans to be saved and return to heaven is by keeping the Levitical feasts and following the teachings of Ahn Sahng-Hong, which includes believing in God the Mother, AKA Jang Gil-ja, Ahn Sahng-Hong’s wife, who gives everlasting life.

When you lay it out like this, it’s pretty clear how crazy this is. Not only is it a cult of personality, it is a radical deviation from Biblical doctrine. It’s not surprising that they keep most of this stuff to themselves when they go out preaching in parks.

And yet, the WMSCOG is growing very rapidly. They boast of 450 churches in Korea and 3000 around the world.

The member of our church who met them concluded her message to me by saying that this whole experience made her realize how unprepared she was to explain and, if necessary, defend what she believes and why.

How should you respond if you are approached by the WMSCOG? Or by any other pseudo-Christian group that has their own heterodox interpretation of the Bible?

There is one thing which is common to every religion in the world, other than Christianity: they teach that salvation is something that you have to earn. The gospel message of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, teaches that salvation is something that Jesus earned for you, and which is given to you by God as a free gift.

Notice that the soteriology (doctrine of salvation) of the WMSCOG is one of salvation by works.

Here’s what the Bible has to say:

“for it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast,” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

On the matter of feasts and Sabbaths:

“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:9-11).

The gospel is not a call to celebrate feast days and Sabbaths in order to obtain salvation, it is the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done for you, in order to save you. Anyone who teaches that such things are necessary for salvation is not only wrong, they are creating a different gospel.

Jesus said that when he would return again, he would come to judge the living and the dead. The teachings of the WMSCOG are not only incorrect and dangerous, they are heretical; both in their deification of Ahn Sahng-Hong and Jang Gil-ja and in their teaching of salvation by works, which goes contrary to the clear teaching of the Bible that we are justified by God through faith in Christ and his finished work on the cross.

In the big picture, this is just another re-branding of an old, and widespread lie: that you can (and must) work your way to God. The good news of the gospel is that salvation is not earned by your performance being good enough, but on the sufficient sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Rest in that, and be on guard against those who teach otherwise.

For more on the Worldwide Mission Society Church of God and sources for this article, check out these sites:

They Sold Themselves Into Slavery

lamb-slainUnitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren) is the formal name of the group often referred to as the Moravian Brethren or Moravian Church. They were one of the very first Protestant groups in the world, originating from Jan Hus and the Bohemian Reformation of the 15th century in what is now the Czech Republic.

Fleeing religious persecution, they fled to Saxony in 1722, and some of them were given permission to settle on the land of a nobleman named Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, a Lutheran Pietist who had a large estate outside of Berthelsdorf.

The Moravian Protestants who settled there, together with Zinzendorf, established a church and named their settlement Herrnhut (The Lord’s Watch). One characteristic of their new community was continuous prayer, done in shifts by different people. This continuous prayer at Herrnhut went on uninterrupted for 100 years.

What is particularly significant about the Moravian church at Herrnhut is that they were a missionary church. They were the first large-scale Protestant missionary group, and they were the pioneers of the modern missionary movement.

During the eighteenth century alone, the Moravians established mission outposts in the Virgin Islands (1732), Greenland (1733), North America (1734), Lapland and South America (1735), South Africa (1736), and Labrador (1771).

Their all-consuming purpose was to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth, a passion that was evident in their proportion of missionaries to laypeople, by some estimates a ratio of 1:60.

Some of the very first Moravian missionaries went to the Caribbean island of St Thomas. They went there in order to minister to the slaves on the island, even selling themselves as slaves in order to get access.

The Moravians had learned that the secret of loving the souls of men was found in loving the Savior of men. On October 8, 1732, a Dutch ship left the Copenhagen harbor bound for the Danish West Indies. On board were the two first Moravian missionaries; John Leonard Dober, a potter, and David Nitschman, a carpenter. Both were skilled speakers and ready to sell themselves into slavery to reach the slaves of the West Indies. As the ship slipped away, they lifted up a cry that would one day become the rallying call for all Moravian missionaries, “May the Lamb that was slain receive the reward of His suffering.” The Moravian’s passion for souls was surpassed only by their passion for the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. (Source)

I don’t know about you, but it challenges me to see that these people were willing to sell themselves into slavery in order to minister to people they had never met before. That is radical love and radical self-sacrifice. It expresses true belief in the importance and urgency of people coming to know the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done.

This attitude is absolutely counter-cultural, not only in our day, with our extreme focus on self, but also in every generation, since humans are naturally inclined to self-centeredness. This radically different approach to life and others comes from having a Savior and a God who gave up everything to save enemies and rebels, out of love for us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:6-8,10)

To read more about the Moravians and their hearts for prayer and missions, you can check out the entire article this excerpt comes from.

I also recommend this book for those interested in the history of Christian missions: From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions.