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:

The Problem with Free

Several years ago, my wife and I moved to Eger, Hungary to plant a church. Eger is a college town, and the first members of our church were college students, so we did a lot of outreach at the college campus.

One of the main ways we did outreach in the early years at the college, was by organizing lectures on various topics, such as intelligent design, business ethics – we even did a cultural night with Indian dancing and food as well as a lecture on the veracity of the Da Vinci Code, back when that was a hot topic. Each of these events was done for the purpose of evangelism and introducing people to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they were very effective.

The first such event we organized at the college was a lecture on intelligent design from an American speaker who is a friend of ours. We rented out a lecture hall at the college, organized all the logistics – and asked a friend of ours to be in charge of designing a flyer.

The flyer he designed had all the pertinent information on it – including the fact that this event was FREE.  At the very bottom of the flyer was a line of text which read: “And the best part is: It’s Free!”

After the flyers were printed, we began handing them out on the campus, inviting students to join us in the evening for this lecture. As I handed the flyer to one student, he stood and read it, and then handed it back to me and said: “If the best part of this event is that it’s free, then I think I’ll find something else to do.”

This gets to the idea of “Perceived Value”. Perceived value means: “the worth that a product or service has in the mind of the consumer. The consumer’s perceived value of a good or service affects the price that he or she is willing to pay for it.” (source)

In this situation, the ‘perceived value’ was ZERO, because we told everybody that the BEST thing about this event was that it was free!  #epicfail

In spite of this, we did pack the lecture hall out that night, and the event was a success, but we learned a valuable lesson. Interestingly, our most effective outreach in Hungary was (and still is) a camp, which the campers pay full price to attend!

What we have found is that when something COSTS someone something, the perceived value is higher. This has led to discussions about whether we should charge for outreaches, such as concerts, not because we have to, but because ironically more people come when something costs something – because we are wary of things that are free, wondering what the agenda or the catch is behind it being free.

I say all that to say this: I think one area where the Christian church has missed the mark, is when we say basically the same thing about God’s grace as we said on that flyer:  The BEST part is: It’s FREE!

Yes, Grace is freely given by God to the repentant – but in a very important way, Grace is not free: there is a cost to that Grace > it cost God EVERYTHING, it cost Jesus His whole life, AND it will cost YOU everything!  It will cost you your whole life, in order to take hold of it!

This is made very clear by Jesus, who tells parables about a man who found a treasure in a field, and, in his JOY, went and sold ALL THAT HE HAD, that he might purchase that field. Jesus says that you must take up your cross, you must DIE! – you must give up your whole life in order to take hold of the new life that He is making available to you!

Here’s the thing: when we portray that the BEST thing about the Gospel is that it is free, we are diminishing the perceived value. No wonder some people react with a less than enthusiastic response! No wonder some people say: Well, maybe later – you know, once I’m done doing my own thing – if that ever happens.

The point of what Jesus says when he says that the Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man finds and in his joy goes and sells all that he has and returns and buys that field – is that the knowledge of God, the ways of God, eternal life – these things are such incredible treasures, that if you could only understand how great they are, you would be willing to do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING necessary to take hold of them. In other words: No cost would be too high!

And it is only then, once we have helped people to understand this, that we bring them the good news: that it is God’s free gift to them. But the only way to take hold of it is to give all of yourself over to him who gave all of himself for you.

That kind of understanding is one that brings a person to their knees, to tears of thankfulness and gratefulness, where they are overwhelmed with the kindness and goodness and love of God.

The best part about grace is not that it is free. That’s just the icing on the cake. 

May we portray the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its true infinite value: something worth living for, something worth dying for, something worth giving EVERYTHING for.

The Holiday America Forgot

Today is October 31st. That means that today, all across America, neighborhood children are going to come knocking at your door to try to coerce you into giving them candy by threatening retribution if you don’t comply. We call it Halloween, and yes, in its modern form, it’s innocent enough. In fact, as I wrote in this post earlier this week, Halloween is a great opportunity for Christians to think missionally,  as it is the only day of the year when most of your neighbors will come knocking on your door.

However, October 31st is a much more historical and significant day in the history of the world. Before anyone considered dressing up as a superhero or a robot, October 31st was celebrated for a different reason: It is the day when in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church (ironically on the eve of All Saints Day) in Wittenburg, Germany. This event is generally regarded as the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, thus – for centuries before Americans came along and capitalized on Halloween and commercialized it, October 31st was celebrated amongst Protestant Christians as Reformation Day.

These days, Reformation Day is still a big deal in Germany and other parts of Europe, but in America it is only celebrated by a handful of Lutherans, Reformed Christians and other protestants – albeit, most of them celebrate it as a Halloween alternative, and still get dressed up and hand out candy to kids. If you really want to make a splash at one of these events, here’s a tip: dress up as Martin Luther. You’ll probably be the only one (no you won’t; I was being facetious). If you really want to wow all your Lutheran friends at the Reformation Day party, then you should actually dress up like Johann Tetzel – you will be the hit of the party (not really). By the way – I’m allowed to make Lutheran jokes; I went to Lutheran school growing up – Missouri Synod baby. That’s right.

Anyway, obscure Lutheran references aside – I am thankful for the work of the reformers. Men like Luther and Calvin, and Hus and Wycliff before them. I’m thankful that we have been given the freedom to read the Bible for ourselves, in our own languages – and consider for ourselves what God says to us in the scriptures. I am thankful for the return to Biblical theology that these men worked for.

I used to speak at an annual Reformation Day gathering in Hungary, and what was always said at those meetings was that we must remember that the reformation of the church is never over; it is a continual need, that we come and examine every practice and every doctrine according to the Word of God, even in our protestant churches. The Word of God must always remain our standard and our guide in all things.

I hope you have a great October 31st, and remember today that the fact you can have a Bible in your own language, that you can read any time you want, and have God speak to you personally through it – that’s not something to be taken for granted! The teaching of grace that you (hopefully) hear in church – that’s not something to be taken for granted. These things were fought for – and we reap the benefits. Keep that in mind while you eat “fun size” candy bars for the next several weeks, and give thanks to God for what happened on October 31st, 1517.