Friday, May 25, 2012

Coming up short

Thirty years ago I didn't quite know what to do with my Lutheran roots.  I had been raised in a Lutheran church that baptized, educated, and nurtured me.  In that small congregation I was given the chance to explore my gifts for teaching and leadership.  The message I got at home and the message I got in church was the same message.  It was the same message that has been passed down from generation to generation for two thousand years: Jesus is Lord.  You are saved by God's grace.

As I looked around, however, I saw that in some ways, my Lutheran church was lacking.  I saw lots of people who didn't take this message seriously -- at least I couldn't see any evidence that their lives were changed by it.  I recognized some of that complacency in my own life, as well, and I wondered what was wrong with my church that it didn't seem to measure up to the church I read about in the book of Acts.  And at the same time, I wondered what was wrong with me, that I didn't measure up to Paul, or Peter, or even the minor characters like John Mark or Barnabas?

I started to think -- and these thoughts were amply fueled by friends, by conversations overheard, by preachers on television and radio -- that our church lacked evangelical zeal.  That was the sort of term I heard a good deal in those days.   Revival preachers and Pentecostal hand-raisers alike seemed to look down their noses at those staid, steadfast -- not to say boring -- Lutheran churches.  We were little better than the Catholics to them, it seemed: complacent, baby-baptizing, lukewarm pew-sitters.

I visited a few other churches, listened to a few other preachers.  I thought the Pentecostals had the right kind of fever, and the full-body-baptizers had the right passion.  As the years slipped by, I continued to wonder about my roots.  At the same time, though, I had the privilege of studying under some amazing teachers.  These were passionate people, even feverish.  And they taught me a deep, subtle, and most important, biblical way of understanding Jesus, and what it meant to follow him.  They talked about the difference between law and gospel.  They debated about the third use of the law.  They agreed without argument about words like "simul iustus et peccator" and "sola scriptura."  They taught me stories of people like Martin Luther, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others.

So I stayed Lutheran, and grew deeper and deeper into that faith.  But I always still felt the lack, the quiet sadness, that my church was too complacent.

Let me be crystal clear here: I do believe the Lutheran churches -- all of them -- are too complacent.  But I have also come to see that it is no solution to simply say we're going to stop baptizing babies, get a full immersion tank, call ourselves a Community Church, and move on from there.  It is no solution to guilt people into sidewalk evangelism where we rattle off four spiritual laws and pray a prefab prayer with the victim -- oops, I mean "convert" -- and move on down the sidewalk.

Fact is, I believe most -- nearly all -- churches in North America are too complacent.  We have all, sadly, accepted a lighter version of the gospel that is really no gospel at all.  I have talked with dozens if not hundreds of parents who want to have their child baptized as a sort of watery protection from the fires of hell.  I have also talked to many evangelicals who have been "converted" by saying a prefab prayer and accepting-Jesus-as-my-personal-Lord-and-Savior (JAMPLAS for short). Because they have done this, if you ask them what difference this makes, they know that they will go to heaven when they die.

None of this is biblical Christianity.  None of it.

Look for one place in the New Testament where someone is encouraged to be baptized, or to pray a prayer inviting Jesus into their heart, so that they can avoid hell and go to heaven.  You won't find it.  You will find almost no emphasis on going to heaven at all, in fact.  And while you will find much about God's judgment, you will find very little about avoiding hell. The very simple problem with this kind of non-Christianity is that it is totally and utterly self-centered.  Jesus said that those who lose their life will find it, but we are encouraging people to be baptized and to receive Jesus in order to save their lives -- what Jesus labeled a sure route to being lost.  We have replaced biblical Christianity with a self-preserving brand of fire insurance.  We think that the basic question of Christianity is, "How can I go to heaven when I die?"  Again, search the New Testament.  You will not find that question, or at best you will find it rarely, and then only implied.  That question has little or nothing to do with Christianity.

No, the basic question of Christianity is this: "Who is Lord?"  Well, you're thinking, Jesus, of course.  What a silly question.

Let me ask you a few questions about Jesus being Lord -- and at the same time I will ask these questions of myself because I need to:

  • If someone followed you or me around for a week, who would they say is Lord?
  • If someone looked at the amount of time we've spent digging into a Bible, either by ourselves or with others, in the last week, who would they say is our Lord?
  • If you or I logged our time, minute by minute, what would the record say about who is Lord?
  • If you're a parent, like I am, and someone asked our kids who is our Lord, what would they say?
  • If we laid out our spending records for the last year, who would the records say is Lord?
According to the New Testament, if Jesus is Lord, it makes a difference.  His Lordship changes things. We are transformed -- regenerated -- made new -- because Jesus is Lord.  Not that we become suddenly perfect or superhuman, but Jesus changes us in tangible ways.  This is not a one-time event, but a process that the Bible calls sanctification.  So here's another question, and this one is worth pondering, not just hanging your head in guilt:

What significant changes has Jesus made in your life in the last six months?  Or better yet, what changes is he working in you right now?  If you call him Lord, where is he stretching, breaking, remaking you?  Who is he using to break your heart?  What group of people, or what individuals, has he used lately to put you on your knees to plead for them?  What habits has he confronted and begun to break in you?  What prejudice has he confronted in your heart?  What old sin has he brought to the surface so that you might repent?  What old grudge have you had to release so that as you forgive another person, you might receive forgiveness as well?

All these things are part of sanctification, part of Jesus' lordship in our lives.  If you can't point to something significant in the last six months, maybe it's time to take a day and just get close to Jesus.  Maybe it's time to set aside some time -- more than just five minutes -- to read his book and talk -- and listen -- to him.

The sad reality of Christianity in North America is that most of us have settled for a self-focused idolatry that makes our religion about us and our eternal security.   We get sprinkled or dipped, we pray a prayer, and feel like we're suddenly secure.  We jump through the Jesus hoop and then we turn back to life as it used to be.  We're still lost, still broken, but we feel a little bit safer because we don't have to fear the car accident or the cancer diagnosis, because if those horrible things do happen, in spite of all our prayers for our own safety (another symptom of our idolatrous disease) we have Jesus there to welcome us into our eternal reward.  

Trouble is, heaven is mostly -- from what I read in the Bible -- about being in the presence of God, knowing God, seeing God face to face, being completely overwhelmed by God.  If we go through this life focused on ourselves, we will be poorly suited for heaven.  And we will have missed out on the main idea of the whole New Testament, the whole of Jesus' ministry, the focus of Jesus preaching -- what he called the "kingdom of God".  What is that, you ask?  Pull out that old Bible and start reading. If you want to know about the kingdom of God, I recommend Luke's gospel.  Then read Luke's second volume, the book of Acts, to put a little more reality to what the kingdom looks like when it happens in and through the church. 

My Lutheran roots and the roots of my Pentecostal and evangelical siblings in the church are all good roots, because they go down deep into Jesus Christ.  The trouble is when we practice these forms of Christianity as if they were simply a way for us to get what we want -- salvation, security, heaven, hope, healing, happiness.  No, Christianity must be, if it is anything, all about Jesus, and the God revealed in his incarnation, teaching, death, and resurrection.  If we are not pursuing this Jesus, this revelation of God, we have come up short.

Sad to say, I know some of you right now are thinking, "So how do I really get to heaven?"  The answer is, quite simply, stop worrying about it.  Forget about getting yourself to heaven and ask how you can get to know Jesus better.  That decision, about who gets into heaven and who doesn't, is pure and simply not your business.  It is God's decision.  Your business is to know and follow Jesus.  That is certainly enough to occupy us all for this lifetime, and the next.


  1. Jeff,
    Much of what you have written here resonates with me. My path began in the Pentecostal tradition and lead to a (more conservative) evangelical church in my adult life. For many years I was embarrassed by the emotionalism of some of my Pentecostal friends, the embarrassment turned to disgust during the fall of a few "big box" pastors named Jimmy.

    However, my feelings to many churches (meaning denominations) has mellowed in recent years. We have far more in common than one might think. We differ in such minor things as the technique of baptism and the Lord's summer. Truly, God is more interested in our hearts than in our technique.

    I do wish to offer you, and your fellow Central Lutheranites, a bit of praise. The heart and spirit of your missions-minded workers so impresses me. Your Pastorates, Alpha teams, and missions trips often humble me. I wonder why can't I get ten people from my church to pack food for "Feed My Starving Children?" Why do WE seem so complacent?

    But that brings me to the primary reason I decided to comment, this thing that we in the modern age have come to call "conversion." No doubt this evolved from good intentions, from folks reading chapter 28 of Matthew a bit to quickly. We are called to go into all the world, to preach, to teach, to feed, to help, and most surely to make DISCIPLES. Unfortunately, many in the church have effectively converted the time consuming process of discipleship into a simple prayer, a simple decision of the mind. Sadly so.

    The Bible (Romans and elsewhere) does speak about the transforming and renewing of our minds, but this is a process worked out through discipleship and accomplished by the Holy Spirit. It is not a single decision but a change of life - many decisions, daily decisions.

    I do wish to make on last comment, on the issue of heaven / Kingdom of God. As you indicate the Kingdom of God begins on earth. At some point in time, only God knows when, those who follow Christ will join Him eternally (parable of the sheep and goats), while those whom reject Christ will forever be separated from Him (see also the parable of the wheat and tares).

    It matters not if we are Lutheran, Pentecostal, Evangelical, or anything else. The best picture (parable) that Jesus provided was the illustration of the Good Samaritan. When the "expert in the Torah" asked Jesus, "how do I get to heaven?" Jesus answer was, "love your GOd with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your spirit, and with all your body (strength)." Even the "expert" understood this as it came right out of Deuteromony. (In essence, loving God in that way is a description of child-like faith.)

    But there was a single part to Jesus' remarks, "Love your neighbor as yourself." This was the issue to which the parable of the good Samaritan spoke. Probably so, because Jesus understood the heart of the "expert" or Pharisee. A natural "side effect" of love for God is a love for God's most loved creation, mankind. This is NOT to be confused with any sort of works theology. Just as a parent does things for our children because we love them, Christ-followers do things for other people because GOD loves them. We are enabled to do this through the power of the Holy Spirit!

    Sorry this became so long. As I said, your post really resonated with me! Thanks and God bless.

  2. Bruce,

    As always, THANK YOU! And very, very well said. I agree that so many of the things that seemed to separate denominations back in the day now seem not trivial, but secondary. And what unites us is so much more critical than what divides us. Thanks for your insights!


  3. P.S. And thanks also for your affirmation of the mission culture that is growing at Central. We continue to try, day by day, to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. It is good to hear that at times we get something right (by the guidance and power of the Spirit, of course!) and that light shines into the world.