Thursday, April 12, 2012

It's About a Person

The New Testament phrase "in Christ" (Greek, en christo) has been the topic of much debate throughout its history. Ever since Paul (or Peter, depending on who wrote his epistle first) coined the phrase in the first century AD, the meaning of the phrase has been greatly contested.

I am not necessarily interested in the larger debate, nor am I interested in discussing the nuanced-Adventist debate about whether all were "in Christ" at the cross, etc. That is a discussion for another day. What has piqued my interest is borne out of personal study that I was doing this morning in Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians.

In 1 Corinthians 1:4, Paul writes, "I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus." This is how the New King James Version renders it, at least. The phrase "by Christ" is a translation of the Greek en christo, however, which has caused most other major translations to render it "in Christ Jesus."

The difference may seem nuanced and minor but the theological distinction is interesting - however subtle it may seem. What Paul is thankful for is that the Corinthians have been given the "grace of God." But how has that grace been given? One way renders it "by," the other "in."

Is there a difference?

Does it make a difference?

The first way, "by," seems to imply agency or means. In other words, God gave the Corinthians grace, and the instrument by which He gave that grace was through Jesus. Thus, Jesus simply becomes a vehicle by which God gives us something. God "uses" Jesus, in some ways, to accomplish an end. Subsequently, the Corinthians also "use" Jesus to receive that which God wants to give them.

This almost makes Jesus an impersonal instrument. He is simply a go-between, a middle Man.

While there may be some truth to the overall concept, it seems to betray our attitudes more than Paul's intent. We seem to use Jesus more as a means to an end rather than as an end itself. Jesus went to the cross to die for our sins, we essentially think, so that God could give us grace, be happy with us, and we can live forever. Then we go to Jesus so we can receive something from God through Him.

And Jesus is only good insofar as He provides something for us.

But I don't think this is what Paul meant when he used the phrase en christo. I think many versions are correct when they translate the phrase "in Christ," which is its most natural rendering. When Paul says that the Corinthians were given the "grace of God . . . in Christ," I believe that Paul was saying that Christ, Himself, was the grace. Though I am probably not on strong syntactical grounds, the Greek construct that is used (a dative) perhaps could be that of content or material. Thus, we do not go to Jesus to receive grace; we go to Jesus because He essentially consists of grace.

So instead of going to Jesus to receive grace, we go to Jesus Himself because He is grace. When God gave grace, He gave us Jesus - not as an instrument to deliver that grace to us, but as the grace itself.

Let us, therefore, not go to Jesus to receive something, but to receive someone - namely, Christ Himself.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More Grace-Oriented Than Jesus

(While searching through the archives of our magazine New England Pastor, I came across this editorial I wrote in May 2009. I thought it might scratch where someone is itching today.)

I don’t know about you, but I continue to grapple with the balance between emphasizing the so-called “positive” elements of the Gospel and the not-so-glorious components of it. There is a constant tension in my mind between calling sin by its right name and yet uplifting the love and forgiveness of the Savior. This tension plays out in the sermons I preach, the articles I write, the interactions I share with members and non-members alike.

This tension also finds its way into the conversations I have with some of my parishioners. I find that some of the saints want stronger messages against sin and the follies of this world, while others are quite uncomfortable with anything other than a “grace-oriented” sermon coming from my lips. Such individuals have openly told me that they will not invite their non-Adventist friends so long as they do not feel it is “safe” to bring them, in fear that they will hear a sermon that talks about the negatives of the Gospel.

This sentiment is shared by many, of course. I’ve heard of numerous churches that have moved more towards a “grace-oriented” style of church, hoping to be more “seeker-friendly” and welcoming to visitors. And, truth be told, if it were left up to me, I would prefer this type of approach completely. My personality and interests are such that I enjoy uplifting Christ’s love and forgiveness and grace more than dwelling on the “negatives” of Christianity.

The problem is, when we pursue such an approach exclusively, we may find that we are actually acting a little more grace-oriented than Christ Himself did. It’s funny how selective we are when it comes to the Gospel story. After all, the same Jesus who said, “Neither do I condemn you,” to the woman caught in adultery, also said, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).[i]  The same Christ who declared, “My peace I give to you,” (John 14:27) also curiously stated, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” (Matthew 10:34).  This is also the same Guy, by the way, who pulled no punches when He called the Pharisees “snakes” and a “brood of vipers,” (Matthew 23:33) and gave no greater endorsement to any human being than to John the Baptist, whose ministry probably wouldn’t exactly be considered “PC,” were he alive today.

The other problem is that such an approach is also incredibly imbalanced. And in an age when the buzz word is “balance,” we cannot afford to be anything but. Thus, in order to be balanced, we must be willing to share the good and the bad. A physician’s career would be short-lived if he or she only gave out positive diagnoses and nice, red lollipops to all of his or her patients. Similarly, merely dwelling on forgiveness all the time doesn’t do a whole lot of good if people don’t recognize that they need to be forgiven in the first place.

Perhaps the biggest problem of all, however, is that such an emphasis on grace is not really giving a full picture of grace at all. The truth is, this five-letter word has been incredibly watered-down throughout its history. You see, grace involves forgiveness and pardon, yes, but that is not it. Grace is also about power to leave the life of sin and selfishness behind. “When God goes about providing grace to men and women of faith, it is an ethical matter and not merely a judicial act leading to legal fiction,” Hebert Douglass writes. “The gospel is concerned about redemption, not legal transactions. Grace liberates men and women of faith from their sins by helping them to overcome them, not cover them by some kind of theological magic or legal fiction—and then call all this ‘righteousness by faith.’ ”[ii]

This is, after all, certainly what Paul meant when he talked about grace. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men,” he informed Titus. “It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11, 12, NIV). For Paul, God’s grace could accomplish much more than simply overlooking past mistakes. It could actually take root in the believer’s life and teach him or her how to be transformed into the image of Christ from glory to glory.[iii]

So here’s a call to truly be “grace-oriented.” Let’s give our parishioners and “seekers” the full picture of grace. Let’s show them a picture of a Savior who not only pardons their sins, but tells them that they have a problem to begin with, and can give them the power to overcome. Such will be the most refreshing picture of grace they have ever seen.

[i] Scriptures taken from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.
[ii] Herbert E. Douglass, Should We Ever Say, “I Am Saved”? (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 2003), 71.
[iii] See 2 Corinthians 3:18.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Christianity . . . Through the Eyes of Someone Who's Never Read the Great Controversy

I came across an interesting little cartoon yesterday. It was Tweeted by my new friend Andreas Beccai. The cartoon is below. It was created by Saji George, who has a series of cartoons that deal with issues of faith. I think it is a clever cartoon that reveals a lot of our biases and myopia.

As I said, I think the cartoon is clever and thought-provoking. It starts a good dialogue about these important matters. However, I think it is a little misguided. Nothing against its creator.This seems to be a pretty typical view that many non-Adventists, and especially non-religious people, have. Sadly, it is also a view that Seventh-day Adventists are increasingly subscribing to. From the classic Adventist perspective, however, it was clearly created by someone who has never read The Great Controversy - which I happen to think is a reflection of the biblical worldview (or, more accurately, the biblical "universeview").

I realize that one of Adventism's greatest challenges is that it comes across as being arrogant. This is unfortunate. This was, however, the same problem Israel had. It did not change the fact that they were still God's chosen people and, truthfully, arrogance is more a reflection of a misunderstanding of what it means to be "chosen," rather than the truth of one's chosen-ness. To be a part of God's "chosen" is less (in fact, not at all) about being saved as it is about being responsible. So the "remnant" concept is missional in nature, not salvational.

This doesn't deny the fact that God has people in all faiths and perspectives (see John 10:16, reading the whole verse). Nor is it to say that Israel (or, by way of extension, Adventism) is any better than anyone else or more loved by God. It simply says that we have a greater responsibility.

Anyway, this cartoon got me thinking about how I would diagram the history of Christianity and the appropriate attitude one should have in relation to that perspective. So here is what I created. It is not exhaustive. In some ways it is simplistic (then again, so is the original cartoon). In other ways it demands exhaustive explanation. But see if it makes sense to you (I hope I am not violating any copyright issues):

A few bullet-point explanations:

  • This diagram is, in no way, fit to scale as it relates to the periods of Christian history.
  • Though some may have a hard time understanding the concept, this diagram - and the point of Christianity - is theocentric (ie., God-centered). When one recognizes the "Great Controversy" theme in scripture, it places the "true church/remnant" concept in perspective.
  • This diagram represents systems of doctrine about God, not necessarily the behavior reflected in the lives of all those who espouse those particular doctrines.
  • The end goal of Christianity is not only to match the level of the New Testament Church - both in doctrine and in praxis - but excel it, thus vindicating God in the Great Controversy. We are not there yet, of course. In fact, I do not think we have even matched the level of the NT church. But I think we are heading in that direction, by God's grace.
  • By God's grace, not only will the truth about God's character be fully restored, but the lives of God's followers will be reflective of that truth. In other words, God's character of love will be fully reflected in God's followers. Perhaps more accurately, the truth about God's character will fully be restored when that truth is seen in the lives of His followers. But this truth can only be seen in the lives of His followers when those followers first understand that truth about Him. So the truth about God and fruit in the life of His followers go hand-in-hand.
  • In case you didn't pick up on it, some of the branches of Christianity are now going backward instead of moving forward!
  • If the diagram were to be completed prophetically according to the book of Revelation, there would end up being only two lines within Christianity - God's true church and Satan's counterfeit. Perhaps even more startling is the fact that the counterfeit would not only include all of apostate Christianity, but every fallen system of truth (ie., systems of lies).
  • Again, this is not to say that people who are presently in those "fallen systems" are bad or lost. It's just that God is now inviting them to "Come out of her, my people" (Revelation 18:4) and be a part of a movement that teaches and lives the full truth of God's character of love - which is what Adventism as a system of truth, I do believe, is working towards. I say this with no arrogance or malice. Just trying to be faithful to what scripture teaches.
I think I will leave it at that for now. For further reflections on this, see my book Waiting at the Altar. For a shorter and more eloquent read, see Ty Gibson's essay, "Why We Exist as a People." I do not believe this is available on the internet anywhere, but contact Ty by going to