Yesterday pastor and author R.C. Sproul passed away. Here is a video summarizing his many years of ministry.
December 6 is the feast day of St. Nicholas. Particularly in Europe, it is celebrated as St. Nicholas Day, and the tradition is to put chocolate and gifts into the children’s shoes for them to find in the morning – a tradition that my wife keeps in our home.
I don’t know if you’ve met them or not, but there are some Christians who think that Santa Claus is evil and that he takes away from the true meaning of Christmas. Not to mention, some would point out, that Santa is nothing more than a misspelling of SATAN, which must be why he goes around in those obnoxious red clothes: because he is from HELL and wants to take you and your kids back there with him!
This of course, is based on a sad lack of knowledge regarding the origin of Santa Claus – the name (in English) being simply a direct derivative of “Saint Nicholas”.
For this reason, some Christians protest anything to do with Santa Claus, and tell their kids that Santa is not real, he is bad, and he takes away from the true meaning of Christmas, which of course is Jesus.
This Christmas season, as we do every year, we will tell our kids the story of the real Saint Nicholas – who was not a mythical fat man in red clothes who rode through the skies on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, but a devout Christian man, a pastor, who was persecuted for his faith, and gained fame because of his generosity to the poor and needy.
We don’t avoid Santa Claus – we don’t even want to. We see it as a great opportunity to teach our kids about a great Christian man who loved Jesus and was generous and kind because of the love of God which was in his heart. THAT is the “Christmas spirit”.
We tell our kids that there are many people in the world who want to follow the example of Saint Nicholas, and that is why they will meet a Santa at their school and at the mall – and some of them will have very fake beards, because none of them are the real Saint Nick. We also teach our kids that, as Christians, we want to be like Saint Nicholas too, and we are going to be generous to the poor and needy too because God loved us so much that he gave us his Son, Jesus, so that we could have eternal life and have a relationship with God.
The Story of the Real Saint Nicholas
The real Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in the village of Patara, in what is now southern Turkey, into a wealthy family. That’s right – no North Pole and reindeer for the real Santa, but palm trees and white sand beaches. His parents died when he was young, and he was taken in and raised by a local priest. Following Jesus’ call to the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:21) to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor”, Nicholas dedicated to use his entire inheritance to assist the sick, needy and suffering.
He became a pastor, and was later made Bishop of Myra. He became famous for his generosity and love for children.
Nicholas suffered persecution and imprisonment for his Christian faith during the Great Persecution (303-311) under Roman emperor Diocletian.
As a bishop, he attended the Council of Nicaea (325), at which he affirmed the doctrine of the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy.
Nicholas died in 343 in Myra. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, the Feast of St. Nicholas, December 6th.
As Christians, we should take back the true story of St. Nicholas
Many stories are told about St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. Perhaps the most famous story is one of a poor man who had three daughters who were of marrying age. Because the man was poor, he was unable to provide a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would not be able to find a descent husband, and would either be married into further poverty or would have to become slaves. After Nicholas found out about this family’s situation, he visited the family’s house, leaving them 3 anonymous gifts – each time a bag of gold, which was tossed through an open window while the family was sleeping. Legend has it that the gold fell into their shoes, the reason for the tradition in Europe that St. Nicholas leaves gifts in children’s shoes. Nicholas provided for these poor girls to help them break out of the cycle of poverty.
My favorite story about Nicholas is what he did at the the Council of Nicaea, where bishops from all over the world gathered to study the scriptures and address the major doctrinal controversies facing the church. Chief among these was Arianism, propagated by Arius, which denied the full deity of Jesus, saying instead that he was a created being – a view that is carried on today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The debate got very heated, and based on the study of the scriptures, Arianism was deemed heretical. Nicholas argued from the scriptures for the deity of Christian and against Arianism, and at one point got so upset with something that was said about Jesus from the other side, that he slapped an Arian. That’s my kind of Santa!
Rather than trying to make Christmas Santa-free, let’s take back the true story of Saint Nicholas and take hold of this opportunity to talk about a Christian man who loved Jesus, championed good theology and exemplified Christ through compassion and generosity to the needy.
One of the criticisms that is sometimes aimed at Christians, is that we “pick and choose” from the Old Testament laws, applying some of them to today, and not others. For example, we agree with the command “You shall not commit adultery”, but we seem to ignore other commands, such as the command not to eat pork and shellfish, or not to wear clothing made of fabrics made up of more than one material (i.e. that poly-cotton blend shirt). Why, someone might ask, do Christians say that the commandments about certain sexual behaviors are still applicable, but they don’t say the same about other commandments, such as executing people for breaking the Sabbath? Aren’t they just arbitrarily picking and choosing according to whatever they deem convenient for them?
The answer is: because we must differentiate between the different types of laws in the Old Testament. To do so isn’t arbitrary at all, in fact it is the only faithful way of handling the Old Testament laws.
John Calvin, the 16th-century reformer, pointed out that the New Testament treated the 613 Old Testament laws in three different ways. There were:
- Civil Laws, which governed the nation of Israel, dealing with behaviors and the punishments for crimes.
- Ceremonial Laws, about “clean” and “unclean” things, various sacrifices and other ritual practices.
- Moral laws, which declared what God deemed right and wrong, such as the 10 Commandments.
For the people of Israel, all three types of laws blended together. Breaking a moral law had civil and ceremonial consequences. Breaking a civil or a ceremonial law was a moral problem. These laws went hand-in-hand because Israel was in a unique place historically, being both a nation and a worshiping community. God was their sovereign, their king, their ruler, not only over their worship, but over their entire civil society. They had no concept of “the separation of church and state.” Since that is the case for us today, our relationship to the Law is obviously different.
This helps us to understand what often seems contradictory about the New Testament view of the Law. The New Testament says that Jesus came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) and because of what He did in his life, death and resurrection, we are released from the Law (Romans 7:1-6; Galatians 3:25).
Understanding how Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law helps us see why we still look to some of the Old Testament laws to instruct and guide us, and “ignore” others.
The Civil Laws were set up to benefit the nation of Israel. However, we are not bound by the civil codes of the Old Testament because there is no longer a theocratic nation-state on earth. We may wisely glean from some of the principles in Israel’s civil laws, such as those regarding public health, caring for the poor, etc. – but in Christ, we have become a “new nation”, the people of God spread out through every tribe, tongue and nation of the Earth, who are subject to the ruling authorities of our respective countries when it comes to civil laws (see Romans 13:1-7)
Things like not eating shellfish, for example, were incredibly thoughtful and merciful commands in the ancient world, for people who did not have refrigeration and did not understand microbes and bacteria. The same is true of pork. As they submitted to these laws without understanding why God had commanded them or what God’s purpose was with them, even if they might have seemed arbitrary to them at the time, the Jewish people benefited from them. There is certainly a lesson for us in that in regard to obeying God’s commands, even when we don’t understand why He has given them.
The Ceremonial Laws illustrate God’s holiness and our unholiness and the inherent problem that we have in approaching God. As the book of Hebrews shows us, the sacrifices were fulfilled in Jesus’ perfect life and death. He is the final sacrifice, who cleanses us inwardly, not only outwardly, and makes us acceptable before God.
The Moral Laws were fulfilled by Jesus in that He lived a perfect life, free of moral failure. Unlike the civil and ceremonial laws, which were bound to particular times and situations, the moral laws show God’s assessment of good and evil, right and wrong. They reflect God’s character, and since His character doesn’t change, neither do His views on morality. In fact, whenever Jesus talked about the moral laws, he either re-affirmed them or intensified them! (see Matthew 5:21-48).
Thus the reason why Christians “pick and choose” from the Old Testament laws is not at all arbitrary, rather it is faithful to understanding the roles and purpose of the different laws, and it is faithful to the teaching of the New Testament.
For more on the topic of the moral law, read: “Oh, How I Love Your Law” – the Role of the Law in the Life of a Believer is More than Just Showing You that You Need a Savior
One of Luther’s great contributions to Christianity was that he pointed out that much of the common thinking about Christian living and attitudes comes from Plato and Aristotle, rather than from the Bible.
Plato, for example, was a dualist – who viewed the physical world as inherently bad, and the unseen spiritual world as inherently good. Therefore, Plato taught that physical pleasure should be avoided; it was better to live a life of suffering and eschew pleasure in order to be more spiritual. This thinking worked its way into Christianity, to the point where things intended by God to be blessings for our enjoyment were rejected and forbidden. One such area was music.
Augustine of Hippo had written about music in the 5th century, stating that he was “troubled in conscience whenever he caught himself delighting in music.” Luther, who greatly looked up to Augustine, responded by saying: “I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God.” He went on to say, “Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor,” and “next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”
“Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.”
“Next to the Word of God only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart.”
Luther is the one who introduced, or at least re-introduced congregational singing to the church. It may be hard to imagine, but until Luther brought singing to the church, there had been no such thing for at least several hundred years, if not more. Furthermore, the fact that there is congregational singing in Catholic churches today is directly because of Luther, and most hymns sung in the Roman Catholic Church today were written by Protestants.
Luther also believed that music was a great tool for teaching spiritual truths. He wanted to put good doctrine into congregational songs to reinforce the teaching that was coming from the pulpit. Luther wrote many hymns himself, but he also reached out to others for help. In a letter to his friend Georg Spalatin in 1523, Luther wrote:
Our plan is to follow the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church and to compose songs for the people in the vernacular, that is: spiritual songs so the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music. Therefore we are searching everywhere for poets. Since you are endowed with a wealth of knowledge and elegance in the German language, and since you have polished it through much use, I ask you to work with us in this project.
I would like you to avoid any new words or the language used at court. In order to be understood by the people, only the simplest and most common words should be used for singing; at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt; and further, the sense should be clear and as close as possible to the [Bible]. You need a free hand here; maintain the sense, but don’t cling to the words; [rather] translate them with other appropriate words.
Furthermore, unlike Zwingli in Zürich, who forbade the use of musical instruments, Luther encouraged the use of musical instruments in church.
Martin Luther not only introduced music back into the church, but he defined the parameters of what makes for good Christian church music.
Today is Reformation Day, and not just any Reformation Day – it is the 500 year anniversary of the event which is usually considered to mark the official start of the Reformation, and rightly so – because something was done on October 31, 1517 which would snowball into the Reformation and would changed the world forever.
But what was that event?
It is widely held, that this is the day when Martin Luther defiantly nailed his 95 Theses to the wooden door of the castle church in Wittenburg, Germany – his hammer strikes shattering the Holy Roman Empire, and the nail piercing right through the heart of the Pope!
But on closer examination, it was actually something no less significant, but probably slightly less dramatic!
Here’s what we know:
Luther mailed a letter
The one thing we do know is that on this day, Luther posted a letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz. So rather than having the picture in your mind of Luther brazenly and defiantly mailing nailed a list of grievances to the door of the church, picture in your mind Luther sitting at his desk, sealing an envelope and then gently handing a letter to a currier, and giving him some cash to deliver it.
Furthermore, this letter was written – not defiantly and aggressively, but in the most humble, polite and apologetic tone that can be imagined.
You can read the text of that letter here: Luther’s Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz (1517)
Here’s just his introduction:
Spare me, Most Reverend Father in Christ and Most Illustrious Prince, that I, the dregs of humanity, have so much boldness that I have dared to think of a letter to the height of your Sublimity. The Lord Jesus is my witness that, conscious of my smallness and baseness, I have long deferred what I am now shameless enough to do, — moved thereto most of all by the duty of fidelity which I acknowledge that I owe to your most Reverend Fatherhood in Christ. Meanwhile, therefore, may your Highness deign to cast an eye upon one speck of dust, and for the sake of your pontifical clemency to heed my prayer.
The reason Luther wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz is because these indulgences were being sold in his name in the region over which he had oversight and authority, and Luther believed that Archbishop Albrecht was not aware of what was going on, and that it was his duty to inform him. Luther expected that upon hearing about what was happening, Archbishop Albrecht would put an abrupt stop to it. That is, however, not what happened…
We don’t know when the 95 Theses were actually posted
It was Melanchthon, Luther’s follower, who several years later gave the date of October 31, 1517 as the date when the 95 Theses were posted. There’s a good chance that he did that based on knowing that was the day when Luther mailed his letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz.
Maybe that is the date, maybe it isn’t.
The 95 Theses probably weren’t posted the way it has been depicted
A hammer and some nails. So dramatic. Such bravado! But in all likelihood, that’s not how they would have been posted.
- They were probably posted with paste, rather than with a hammer and nails. So instead of imagining Luther with his arm cocked back to strike a nail with a hammer, imagine him with a bucket of paste and a brush.
- They were probably not posted by Luther himself. The door of the church functioned as the church bulletin board, where you would post everything from “I lost my cat Mittens” to “I’m offering guitar lessons for $10/hour”. And it was the job of the church custodian to post things on the door. So try to picture Luther gently handing the church custodian something to post on the door, you know: when he had a moment.
- They were probably posted on several church doors. The posting was in Latin (not the vernacular German), and it was an invitation to a scholarly debate. Kind of like how you might post to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram to get your message out there, it is likely that a message like this would have been shared on more than one church door (AKA bulletin board).
No matter the particulars about it, we can be sure of one thing: the Reformation was about a return to the Bible, putting the Bible in the hands of the people, and a rediscovery of the core message of the Bible: the gospel!
Happy Reformation Day!
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Provide things needful for yourself and your family (1 Timothy 5:8)
- Having food and raiment, let us be therewith content (1 Timothy 6:8)
- Provide things honest in the sight of all men (Romans 12:17) & Owe no many anything (Romans 13:8)
- 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?
Since the shooting in Las Vegas last Sunday, authorities have been searching for a motive for why Steven Paddock opened fire on a crowd of people with the intent to kill as many as possible. So far, no leads have turned up. Everyone who knew him seems genuinely shocked. He doesn’t seem to fit any of the expected patterns or usual profiles. People are confused and asking: How does someone get to the point where they would do something so profoundly evil and terrible as this?
The modern worldview is that we are progressing as a society, we are evolving and getting better. Furthermore, it believes that “evil” doesn’t really exist per se, but that “evil behavior” is the result of outside factors:
- You have a psychological complex because you were raised improperly.
- You did it because of bad sociology: you weren’t educated enough, or you were poor.
- It’s a result of bad genetics and/or you are aggressive because of millennia of natural selection which favored aggressive behavior.
There might be some truth to the matters of how someone is raised, but this theory is insufficient. This theory has no category for a Steven Paddock, who doesn’t fit any of these models. He wasn’t poor, he wasn’t uneducated, he was raised in a loving home… It’s interesting to watch reporters grasp at straws to find a reason for what happened to him that made him like this…
It reminds me of a scene from the book, Silence of the Lambs, about the serial killer: Hannibal Lecter. Officer Starling goes in to interview Hannibal Lecter, and she is looking at him and considering what he has done, and she sees his attitude, and she asks:
“What happened to you that made you like this?”
Officer Starling is the quentisential modern person. She thinks: “You are doing bad things, therefore something must have happened to you, something must have come from outside – it couldn’t have come from inside!” This is a philosophical leap of faith, which assumes that people are basically good, and if they do anything bad it is only because of outside influence.
Hannibal Lecter replies:
“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants – and nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand and say I’m evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?” (The Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris)
Hannibal Lecter is making a very important point: the modern worldview has no category for evil.
The modern world view has actually been eroding very quickly. In the 20th Century, the world became wealthy and educated, many of the problems of poverty were overcome, and yet wars and violence didn’t end, they escalated. The 20th Century was the most bloody century in history – at a time when the world was more educated, industrialized and wealthy than ever before.
The Christian worldview, however, which is based on the Bible, has no problem accepting these things – because we have a very comprehensive view on sin.
We have a category for Hannibal Lecter and for Steven Paddock. The Bible tells us that within all of us lurks the capacity for terrible acts, because we are fallen and corrupt. The theological term is: Totally Depravity. That means that, apart from God’s work within us, even the good things we do, we do for less-than-pure motives: either to benefit ourselves, bring praise to ourselves, or to justify ourselves.
But the Bible doesn’t just stop there with telling us what’s wrong, and that evil lurks inside of us; it also tells us what God has done to save us and redeem us. It tells us what God has done to destroy evil without destroying us: He took on human flesh, became one of us, and died a substitutionary death, so that through His death He might destroy the one who holds the power of death, and set free those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15)
We should pursue better legislation, further education and the eradication of poverty, because we have been given a calling and vocation from God to “subdue the Earth,” i.e. to manage it well and to do all that we can under God to promote human flourishing. But we must remember that such things do not change the heart. We must place our ultimate hope in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.
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:
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:
- What is the World Mission Society Church of God, and what do they believe?
- CARM.org – Introduction to the World Mission Society Church of God
- Wikipedia article on WMSCOG (interesting because it has clearly been edited by members of their church to represent what they truly believe, and has linked references to their own official website)