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A confused evangelicalism

A survey among American churches indicated that 48% of ‘born-again’ Christians either believed or were not sure that Satan was merely a symbolic way of referring to all that is evil. Of the same research population 60% believed that “Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and others all pray to the same God, even though they use different names for that God.” The exclusive nature of the Gospel that we have in Jesus Christ is no longer believed by all who call themselves evangelical Christians.

It’s not that all these ‘born-again’ Christians have lost faith in God; it’s that many of them have replaced the God found in the Bible with a God of their own imagination. They no longer seek their understanding of God in the Bible. Instead, he has become the God of the ‘market-place’; the One who is the consensus of an increasingly illiterate Christian church—a God of convenience.

Some years ago, when Vice President Joseph Biden was still a Senator, he suggested that seeing American society was becoming increasingly pluralistic, the nation should legislate on the basis of Natural Law, and no longer on the basis of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The problem was that there is no consensus about the meaning of natural law. However, the way nations seem to be heading, Natural Law is being interpreted as what is ‘natural’ to the majority of people in a country. In other words, society has the right to say what is right for us at this time of our history. With the rejection of God, we have rejected absolutes in moral law.

Many people who have hidden behind the safety of that well-known label, ‘born-again’, have also deserted the foundations of their faith, and have created their own understanding of God, and what is right and wrong, and what is acceptable to them, and what is not.

Lessons from Jeremiah

In going through the prophecies of Jeremiah for the umpteenth time, I see the relevance of this book to us today. Sure, we haven’t deteriorated morally and ethically to the extent Israel had. We do not offer our children to Moloch in the way they did. As Christians we do not oppress the stranger to the same extent, or shed innocent blood. We do not bow down to pagan gods in the same way as they did, although the way we are committed to all that is material, is surely idolatry. Even the increasing use of ‘icons’ in worship among so-called evangelicals, is yet another evidence of deciding for ourselves what we can or can’t do.

But the road towards that kind of apostasy is well trodden. So, how does it start? God’s verdict was,

My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jer. 2:13).

God and his Word ceased to be the basis for their belief and practice. It didn't happen overnight. The compromise Israel reached between its covenant commitments and the pagan Canaanite religion and practices would have taken time. The infiltration of pagan ideas presupposed a lack of conviction among most Israelites that what God had said and required of them did not really suit them. Was God really so exclusive as to forbid people thinking for themselves, and making up their own minds about what was right and wrong for them! Many demands of God seemed an unbearable burden to them. So they chose to go their own way.

What did that mean? It didn't necessarily mean that they completely rejected everything God had said. Rather, every person felt free to interpret God’s demands for himself.

Every man's word becomes his Oracle and so you distort the words of the living God, the Lord Almighty, our God. (23:36).

Perhaps you could not expect anything better from the common people, thought Jeremiah, (5:4), so he turned to the religious leaders. Surely, they must know better… only to find,

… with one accord they too had broken off the yoke and torn off the bonds. (5:5).

The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. (5:31).

Relativism

In an article, What it Means to Me, Walt Russell[1] talks about an attitude that has prevailed in many small group Bible studies. It is the attitude that we don't have to agree about the meaning of any Bible passage. "… the Bible is a matter of personal interpretation and one verse can mean one thing to one person and something else to another." Russell goes on to show that according to a Barna Research Group, 66% of American adults do not believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth. Different people, they say, can define truth in conflicting ways and still be correct. This figure rises to 72% when it comes to those between the ages of 18 and 25.

Many Christians who have considered themselves to be evangelical in the past, have come to feel free to interpret the Word of God as they see it, instead of seeking to discover what God wants them to understand. The first approach filters God’s Word through present-day secular perspectives. In other words, the secular influences I have embraced, influence the way I approach the Bible. In the second approach, I come to the Bible to see how God wants me to understand him, and what he has to say in his Word. I am prepared to change the way I think and understand life.

Is the first approach any different to Israel's attempt to twist the meaning of God's Word to suit themselves? The ‘cisterns’—the source of their spiritual resources—had dried out. Once they had rejected God's Word, their own wisdom had nothing to offer them. Paul asks the question,

Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Cor. 1:20, 21).

Here is the sin of the Garden of Eden continuing to affect all of life. Wisdom that is independent of God can never lead us to truth. And for truth to be truth, there can only be one truth, because it has to be based on the Source of truth, God.

Christianity redefined

Once, not that long ago, to be a Christian was to find one's identity in the Bible. While nominal Christianity has always been with us, people nevertheless understood Christianity as something that emerged from our understanding of the Bible. That is no longer the case. People quite readily refer to themselves as Christians without having any qualms about not even reading the Bible. Too many have been influenced by a secular world that, if it still believes in God, sees him as some kind of benevolent grandfather figure who in the end, will love and be gracious to all no matter what they do. We see this when it comes to the funerals of non-believers. A person may have had no time for God, and even despised him, but when it comes to facing the after-life, people quickly lean on God’s “Amazing grace…”. But, it is a grace that is available only in Jesus Christ. Yes, we have influenced the world to understand that much; and now the world is influencing us back with a watered down belief that is a lie.

Degenerating West

In 2012, President Putin of Russia said, "The West is waning." He was referring to the financial and economic condition of Europe and the United States. What he didn't mention is the spiritual and moral decline of the West.

In a Webcast forum in Australia, in 2011, on the issue of the definition of Marriage, former Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson commented that the West was in moral decline.

Where did it all start? The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), regarded by some to be the father of international law, claimed that natural law is a valid concept "even if God did not exist". The advocates of natural law claim that everyone has a consciousness of what is right and wrong because they are human beings. This consciousness of right and wrong does not depend upon some kind of divine revelation, but is self-evident in the life of each individual.

The theologian Emil Brunner claimed that,

Where the consciousness of the Holy disappears, where the religious element becomes blurred, or even is questioned and regarded as superstition, there the moral is menaced with becoming something purely conventional or utilitarian, and thus perverted…. If there is no answer to the question of the Lawgiver, then the law is in danger of losing its convincing power.[2]

It is with this problem that modern lawmakers have reached an impasse. Law Professor Johnson, comes to the same conclusion as Brunner when he adds,

The so called death of God turns out not to have been just his funeral… but the death of any coherent… convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon final authority.[3]

Originally, legal, ethical and religious aspects of law were seen as inseparable. People in the ancient world believed that everything came from the gods who ensured orderly existence in the universe through law. Law, particularly in the Hebrew sense was understood in the wide sense as the Word of God that regulated all things in an orderly fashion, and brought well-being to its inhabitants. This close association of law with the divine has largely continued throughout the ages.

Until now!

Need for an honest appraisal

We tend to blame multiculturalism for all the changes that are taking place in our society, but a more considered look at what is happening would indicate that the pressures for change come more strongly from small minority groups that are desperate to get rid of the idea that God has anything to do with the way we live. Aldous Huxley was honest when he said,

For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument for liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic systems and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. We objected to the political and economic systems because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confusing these people and at the same time justifying ourselves and our political and the erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever. (1937, 269-73).[4]

The tragedy within the Christian Church is that an increasing number of professing ‘born-again’ Christians want the same freedom, i.e. freedom to do and believe what they want to.

There is no Christianity outside that which the Bible portrays. There is no Christianity without Jesus Christ at the centre of a person’s life that is lived under his lordship. There is no Christianity without the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the believer. And, if the Holy Spirit truly indwells us, then God's Word, the Bible, will be the only basis for what we believe and the way we live.

For many church-goers the cisterns of their creation—their personal spiritual resources—are either full of stagnant water, or have dried out. From people who sit in the pews of our churches, to the pulpits from which God’s Word is meant to be proclaimed and taught, there is often shallowness, dryness, even emptiness. And many people seem to “love it that way”. Others groan for lack of truth, reality, nourishment. It is time to repent and return to the Fountain of Living Water, who said,

…if anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him. (Jn. 7:37-38).

Influencing, rather than being influenced

People who are genuinely seeking God, need to return to Christ, the only Mediator between God and us. It is not only to find new satisfaction in him, but that we might become the agents through whom the Holy Spirit can flow to the blessing of others. Instead of submitting ourselves to the influences that are opposed to God, we need to return to the One who can refresh our spiritual experience of God so that we have the wisdom and the courage to influence others. We need to be clear about what we believe, and completely convinced that God’s Word is true, reliable, and trustworthy. We will never convince others if we ourselves are not convinced. We cannot sit ‘on the fence’ when it comes to distinguishing the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from all the other so-called gods.

There is only one truth

There is only one truth, and to believe in it is not a matter of pride or humility. As Dr Peter Cotterell puts it, truth “is a matter of fact. Islam says Jesus wasn’t crucified. We say he was. Only one of us can be right. Judaism says Jesus was not the Messiah. We say he was. Only one of us can be right. Hinduism says that God has often been incarnated. We say only once. And we can’t both be right.”[5] We can add, the secular, material world tells us that there is lasting satisfaction in what we can accumulate here and now. We say we can’t. Only one of us can be right. And, our judgement is not based on our personal opinions, but on what God has made clear to us in the Bible.

Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me. (Jn. 14:6). Let us not be afraid to echo this unpopular and exclusive truth.

[1] Walt Russell is associate professor of New Testament language and literature at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, California. His article first appeared in the October 26, 1992 issue of Christianity Today.

[2] Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, 1946, p.326

[3] Philip E Johnson, ‘Nihilism and the End of Law,' First Things 31, March 1993, pp.19-25.

[4] Quoted in D.A. Carson, Gen. ed., Telling the Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000) p.141.

[5] Peter Cotterell, in The London Bible College Review, 1989, p.53.