Are all religions equally valid? (book extract)


Are all religions equally valid

Prescriptive pluralism is the idea that a multiplicity of faiths and cultures is not just an observable fact in the modern world, but something which is right.

All religions ought to be promoted as equally valid. This is the approach adopted by politically correct multiculturalism.

On the surface it sounds good. But the corollary is taken to be that therefore any group which claims to have ‘the truth’ in such a way that other faiths are deemed untrue or wrong is not to be tolerated.

We all want to see people of different cultures and faiths living peacefully together. But this outlook would want to legislate restrictions on what people, especially Bible-believing Christians, are allowed to believe and publicly declare. Inevitably it comes into collision with those who believe in Jesus, who said: ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14.6).

There is a vast amount which could be said about what is wrong with prescriptive pluralism, but let me simply indicate three fatal flaws in its logic.

A biased agenda

Multiculturalism often promotes itself under the banner of being ethnically and religiously sensitive. If you, perhaps as a Christian, give your view of a subject you will be smiled at paternalistically by the politically correct person and told: ‘Well, that is just your perspective’. The implication is: ‘You are biased, but I am not’. But actually the whole exercise is biased. It is biased towards Western secularism, which is the mother of political correctness. ‘All cultures are equal’, we are told. But the question is: ‘Who says so?’ Does a Muslim believe that? Does a Hindu not believe that her way is right? Does a Christian not believe that Christian behaviour is the best path to follow? In fact, it is only the Western secularist who believes that all cultures are equal. So the agenda is biased from the start.

Or come at it through the religious route. ‘All religions are of equal value’, we are told. But how do you define ‘religion’? You cannot just say, for example, that religions are about belief in God or gods. Many Buddhists do not believe in divine persons. A Christian missionary gave a Bible to an Indian Hindu intellectual. After he had read it, the man said: ‘I thought you said this was a religious book? As far as I can see it is not about religion. It is a particular interpretation of history’. So, in his own terms of ritual, etc., this man did not recognise Christianity as a religion. Now, how does the politically correct agenda define religion? Basically it defines it as anything that is not Western secularism. It will not include itself. This is pure bias.

An irrational agenda

The multicultural agenda wishes us to believe that all faiths and cultures are equally valid. It does this out of a concern for human rights.

But at the same time there are certain faiths and cultures which do not match or actually attack the human rights which the politically correct say they are seeking to uphold. Let me take two extreme examples simply to prove the point.

During the 1930s, the philosophy of Nazism took root in Germany, with Adolf Hitler being swept into power. But Nazism, based on a version of social Darwinianism, believed that the Arian race was the ‘master race’ and that other races, like the Jews, were inferior. Nazism therefore promoted a culture of racism which led to the tragedy of the holocaust. Here then is a culture which opposes multiculturalism. For the politically correct to say that all people and cultures are equal is irrational and ludicrous if they include cultures (like Nazism) which say they are not.

But it is not just Nazism which has such a view. The late radical Islamist Osama bin Laden took an equivalent position. Interviewed on the Arabic news station Al-Jazeera after the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in New York, he made clear his hatred of Western culture. Commenting on what he hoped the attacks really meant, he let out an elated cry, saying: ‘The values of this Western civilisation under the leadership of America have been destroyed. Those awesome symbolic towers which speak of liberty, human rights and humanity have been destroyed. They have gone up in smoke’. Notice what he abhors: liberty and human rights. He would see those, presumably, as a challenge to the absolute authority of Allah and therefore to be repudiated.

Here, then, again is an attitude and (with extremist Islam) a culture which deplores another culture. How can such a culture sit rationally within an outlook which says that ‘all cultures are equal’? It cannot.

Most multiculturalists, I think, would rightly reject both Nazism and bin Laden’s form of extreme Islam. But, if that is the case, it is plain that they are bringing certain criteria to bear in considering what is an acceptable culture and what is not. In other words, they are contradicting the idea that all cultures are equal.

An imperialist agenda

In considering different faiths there is a famous parable to which people often refer. It is the story of a number of blind men touching different parts of an elephant and trying to describe the animal. One reports his feeling of the tusk. ‘The elephant is solid bone’, he says. Another speaks of a sturdy flexible cylinder — the trunk. Another indicates a smaller, thinner appendage — the tail. Another speaks of a large high wall — the body. They argue with each other and contradict each other as to what the animal is like. But the king, looking on, tells them they are wrong to argue. They are all touching the same animal, but just different parts of it. ‘There’, says prescriptive pluralism, ‘you religious people have such contrasting ideas but you are all in touch with the same reality and therefore should acknowledge that each person’s point of view is equally valid.’ It all appears so reasonable.

But listen to what Bishop Lesslie Newbigin says. ‘In the famous story of the blind men and the elephant … the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get hold of part of it. The story is constantly told to neutralise the affirmations of the great religions, to suggest that they learn humility and recognise that none of them can have more that one aspect of the truth. But, of course, the real point of the story is the exact opposite. If the king were also blind, there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth, which all the world’s religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativises all the claims of the religions.’1

The multicultural / prescriptive pluralism programme assumes the position of the king. It is, therefore, very much a kind of imperialistic agenda. ‘We know what is right and you religious people must do as we say.’ In particular, religious people must give up believing or declaring that they have found universal truth. This is the arrogant claim of the politically correct.

Once we step back and look at all this we see just how hypocritical the politically correct multicultural programme actually is. This is because it is actually itself guilty of all the things of which it accuses the religions (and especially Christianity). It is biased. It is biased towards Western secularism. It is irrational. It says that all cultures must be treated as equal, when it clearly would reject cultures which reject common human rights. It is imperialistic. It decries those who proclaim they have universal truth, but at the same time it says that all must bow to its agenda.

1. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin, SPCK, 1989, p.9.

This article is an edited extract from Christians in a PC World by John Benton, recently published by Evangelical Press (ISBN 978 0 852 349 120, currently on sale at £7.64).

(This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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Passion: how Christ’s final day changes your every day (book extract)


Passion_Christs last dayOn Good Friday morning, there was a courtyard in Jerusalem where every kind of person was represented.

There were Jews and Gentiles. There were political and religious elites — the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish priests. And there was the crowd, the great mass of unnamed people who turn the wheels of history in every age. And there was a beaten, bloodied man, who’d claimed to be a king but was being tried as a criminal. His name was Jesus.

In Luke 23, Luke shows us this universal scope in order to invite us to locate ourselves within the story. We’re drawn to put ourselves in the shoes of the different characters. We’re challenged to ask ourselves: of all the people there that day, who am I most like? Who represents me?

And Luke’s provocative answer is: all of them, except one.

You are Pontius Pilate

Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. In verse 20 he wants to release Jesus, and in verse 22 he responds to the cries of the crowd: ‘I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty.’ But he won’t simply free him, because he doesn’t want to anger the Jewish leaders who think he is guilty. And so, in the end, he hands Jesus over to be crucified. Pilate has the power to protect the innocent; instead, he sends him to his death. It’s at this point that Matthew’s Gospel includes the famous detail of Pilate washing his hands of the whole affair (Matthew 27.24).

It’s easy to condemn Pilate. Surely we could never do anything like that… could we? If the innocent Lord of creation had stood before us, we would never have sent him to his death… would we?

But what is Pilate’s crime, ultimately? In verse 23, Luke tells us ‘their voices prevailed’. Pilate ‘decided to grant their demand’ (v.24), and so he ‘surrendered Jesus to their will’ (v.25).

Pilate is forced to make a decision: will he do the right thing, or the popular thing? Will he fear God, or fear man? Let’s pause to ask ourselves: have we ever chosen to do what was easy rather than what was right? Ever compromised on our convictions, or kept silent when we should have spoken, or just decided that it would be better to go along with the crowd? Ever backed down from treating Jesus as King because it happened to be a little inconvenient?

The honest answer, for all of us, is ‘yes’, isn’t it? At those moments we were in Pilate’s shoes… and we did what Pilate did. We wanted to do what was popular more than we wanted to do what was right. So while we’ve probably never done anything as awful as what Pilate did, that’s only because we’ve never had the opportunity.

Breaking the power of cowardice

It’s hard to be honest enough to recognise our own cowardice. It’s still harder to break its hold on our hearts. How can we do it?

First, we need to fear God more. Fearing God means worshipping him, knowing his holiness, and trusting in him. For those who live shamelessly for Christ in this life, fearing God isn’t about abject terror, because ‘the Son of Man will … acknowledge him before the angels of God’ (Luke 12.8). Fearing the Lord is about being more concerned with God’s judgment than the judgment of our peers.

Second, we also need to love people more. When we fear other people, we can’t actually love them; we only want them for their approval. It’s really quite selfish. We withhold from people the things that they need from us, because we fear that they might cut us off from the things that we want from them. Love has the power to displace cowardice.

But ultimately, believing the gospel is the key. If you grasp the magnitude of what God has done for you in Christ, then he will become the primary object of your love and affection. His gaze will be the most important in your life. When you understand that Christ’s death secures your total acceptance and approval before God, then you won’t be so concerned about what other people think about you.

And when you no longer need everyone else’s approval, you can be free to love them truly and care for them selflessly.

You are the crowd

Pilate proclaims Jesus’ innocence, but Luke tells us that ‘with one voice they cried out’ (v.18) for Jesus to be crucified. Who are the ‘they’? It’s the chief priests, the rulers and the people — everyone else.

They all cry out together. This is a universal, unanimous verdict from people of every walk of life and social class. Everyone cries out: ‘Get rid of him!’ Why? Surely there is some mob mentality there—people do crazy things when the crowd is going in that direction. But perhaps there is something deeper going on, because in that shout we see most clearly the natural state of man. We are, at our core, God’s enemies. There, in the howling hatred of the crowd, we see something of our natural attitude towards God. When it came down to a choice, they prefer to have a murderer live among them rather than God himself.

There is no middle ground. God is perfectly holy. We were created to know him and enjoy him and obey him and worship him and be satisfied in him. But we have all rebelled against that. We have all looked for fulfilment in other places. We have done whatever seemed right to us rather than what God has told us is right.

And so now we are God’s enemies. We are rebels against him and he is a threat to our way of life. He stands between me and my desire to run my world the way that I want to. And every time I decide to live my way instead of under Jesus’ rule, I am wishing he did not exist; that he were dead. I can see my own face in that mob. The tragedy of our race is that every human being has divine blood on their hands. The wonder of history is that the divine Son shed his blood for this same human race.

You are Barabbas

The murderer Barabbas is the opposite of the people we’d like to be, and like to think of ourselves as. But for a moment, put yourself in his shoes. You are sitting in a Roman jail awaiting your death. You know you will be crucified for your crimes. And, in your more honest moments, you know you deserve it. There aren’t many worse ways to die. And so day after day you sit in this jail, anticipating the nails, the mockery, the excruciating pain, the blood filling your lungs, the breaking of your legs. That’s your future. You don’t know when it’s coming, but you know it is coming.

And then on this fateful day you hear a mob outside. Something is going on. Has word gotten out that today is your day, your day to die? It sounds like it: you can hear the crowd screaming: ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’

Imagine what you’d be thinking! Finally, the Roman guards come and get you. They drag you out in front of the angry mob and… you are set completely free.

As you stand there, you watch another man stumble off under the weight of the cross — the cross you’d pictured yourself carrying. You discover as you ask some bystanders that it was him they’d demanded be crucified; it was him the shouts were directed at, not you. You ask what he’s done, but the people near you are surprisingly hazy on that. But they chose you to live, they say, and him to die. Somehow, you are going free because that man is going to die.

Jesus bore the guilt and shame and curse and disgrace and death that Barabbas deserved, while Barabbas received the release, the freedom, the life that Jesus deserved. Barabbas was now a free and innocent man as far as the law was concerned. Jesus was the condemned one.

You really are just like Barabbas! You and I are sinners; we sit in a spiritual prison, helpless, awaiting the day where we get the just punishment that we deserve. But then Jesus dies in our place. He gets what we deserve: we get what he deserves.

This is the glory of the cross; that God the Father sent God the Son to die for men and women like Barabbas; men and women like us. We won’t grasp or appreciate the events of Good Friday unless we stand in Barabbas’ shoes, and find that they fit us.

This article is an edited extract from Passion: How Christ’s final day changes your every day by Mike McKinley, published by The Good Book Company (£6.79, ISBN 9778 1 908 762 061) — http://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/passion

(This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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Jesus, the Son of God (book extract)


Jesus Son of God

It is well known that the Qur’an denies that Jesus can be thought of as God’s Son.
At street level, many Muslims think Christians believe that God somehow impregnated Mary, and that the Trinity is made up of God, Mary and Jesus. They find the construction bizarre, not to say blasphemous, and, of course, they are right.
Aware of these Muslim sensibilities, some sectors of SIL/Wycliffe, Frontiers and other organisations have pursued Bible translations that have replaced many references to God as the Father and to Jesus as the Son. Intense debates about this surged into public view in an article written by Collin Hansen for Christianity Today in 2011. SIL/Wycliffe have issued a variety of statements, the most recent, in February 2012, indicates that all publication of these new translations will be suspended until further discussions have taken place. My own restricted aim in what follows is to offer six evaluations on the translation of references to Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ in Scripture.

Diversity of connotation
We should all recognise the extraordinary diversity of ‘son of’ expressions in the Bible. Probably they should not all be handled the same way. Yet the diversity of ways in which we translate Hebrew expressions such as ‘son of oil’ and ‘son of quiver’, for example, does not by itself warrant similar diversity in the ways we render ‘son(s) of God’.
My sister served as a missionary to a tribe in Papua New Guinea. How does one render, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ for people who have never seen lambs or sheep and have no word for such animals? On the other hand they were accustomed to sacrificing pigs. So would it be wiser to render John 1.29, ‘Look the Swine of God who takes away the sin of the world’? Doubtless one could make a case for such a rendering. But sooner or later Bible translators for this tribe would run into texts that talk about fleecing sheep and still others that designate pork an unclean food. What initially seems an easy fix begins to generate many problems.
On any reading of the evidence, the associations of the expression ‘Son(s) of God’ are complicated, theologically laden and inescapable. Why should it not be better, then, to render the original more directly, perhaps with explanatory notes?

Render it as ‘Messiah’
In one of his earlier papers, part of which he has now rescinded, Rick Brown, one of the premier thinkers for the new translations, rightly points out that one of the uses of ‘Son of God’ in the Bible is bound up with the appointment of the Davidic king, the Messiah. In such cases, it is frequently found in parallel with ‘Messiah.’ (e.g., Luke 1.31-33; 1 John 5.1,5; Matthew 16.16). ‘This establishes’, Brown insists, ‘that Jesus and Matthew saw these as synonyms…’ This reasoning, in Brown’s original view (which he has since repudiated), justifies substituting ‘Christ’/‘Messiah’ for ‘Son of God’ where the latter is likely to cause umbrage.
But this argument is flawed. First, Brown is fully aware that when two expressions are said to be synonymous, it rarely means they are completely interchangeable. If that were the case, then ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16.16) really means, ‘You are the Messiah, the Messiah’.
Second, why do Mark and Luke report less of the total of Peter’s confession than Matthew reports? If it is because it is ‘adequate’ to preserve only ‘Messiah’ and not ‘Son of the living God’ for their own theological interests and priorities, that means, of course, that for Matthew’s purposes it is not adequate to leave out ‘Son of the living God’ — that’s why he left the expression in.
Third, Brown’s analysis leaves out of consideration the biblical-theological trajectories of the Davidic king motif and of the ‘Son of God’ terminology of the Old Testament. Biblically informed readers pick up on the associations, say, of 2 Samuel 7.14, Psalm 2.7, Isaiah 9, Psalms 89, 110. It is not a responsible riposte to say that the envisaged Muslim readers of the new translations are not biblically informed so they could not conjure up biblical trajectories. That may be true, but it misses the point. For, once biblical translations are adopted, they become standard for the rising Christian community that would then be saddled with translations that fail to preserve the biblical trajectories which make sense of the pattern of the NT use of the OT.

Pragmatism?
It is argued that traditional renderings are bad translations because, for Muslim readers, they convey mental images of physical begetting, sexual union and biological sonship that are deeply offensive to Muslims. This is an important argument, not one to be set aside lightly. If traditional translations convey things that are not true, surely we are duty-bound to do our best to provide translations that do not convey what is false.
But it is often pointed out, correctly, that the deepest Muslim umbrage is not taken at expressions that have been falsely understood, but at expressions that have been rightly understood. The incarnation itself is deeply offensive, however it was brought about.
Another pragmatic appeal is that of the remarkable success of these new translations. It is hard to test the figures that circulate, but thousands have been converted, in some sense, through these new translations. Yet when certain tests are made, 46% of such converts avow they prefer to read the Qur’an than the Bible and 72% continue to think of Muhammad as the final prophet. How many of these conversions are spurious?

Theological glue
In Scripture, distinguishable uses of ‘Son of God’ can be used side by side, held together by nothing more than the expression itself, with the result that the entire conception of ‘Son of God’ is enriched.
For example, in Matthew 1-4, Jesus is the Son of God in that, like Israel the son of God, he recapitulates much of Israel’s experience — being called out of Egypt and being tested in the wilderness. But the latter event is preceded by the declaration of the voice from heaven at Jesus’s baptism: ‘This is my Son, whom I love’ — almost certainly picking up on the Davidic/kingly use of sonship, which in any case is certainly further developed in Matthew’s Gospel. There is no point asking: ‘OK, then, which kind of son is he really?’ The point is that Jesus is the perfect Israel and the perfect David, and the two notions are held together by the one rubric, Son of God.
In other words, the richest theological loading of the expression ‘Son of God’ as applied to Jesus springs from passages that deploy the expression to cross-pollinate distinctive uses. This fact constitutes a driving reason to translate ‘Son of God’ and ‘Father’ expressions consistently, for otherwise these crucial intracanonical links will be lost to view.

A personal word
I have had the privilege of working with SIL/Wycliffe personnel on three continents. I am a huge admirer of their work. But I have to say that not many of them are trained in exegesis, biblical theology or systematic theology. No one can be an expert in everything, but I hope that some of these diligent workers will begin to see the importance for Bible translation of the considerations I am advancing and will pursue advanced theological training.

Where is this leading?
I have three observations. First, the new approach to Bible translation is in danger of cutting off its ‘converts’ from the history of the confessionalism of the universal church. It is not a light thing to stand aloof from the authority of those early councils and creeds. Second, a considerable literature has arisen from Muslim-convert believers who are aghast at these developments, arguing on both technical and personal grounds that these new translations are the product of Westerners who are imposing their work on local churches. Third, the spread of the gospel in the early church saw the dissemination of Scripture along with the provision of missionaries and pastors. One wonders if at least some of the tensions over Bible translations spring from providing translations without simultaneously providing missionaries and pastors.

This article is a heavily edited version of the last chapter of Jesus, the Son of God by D.A. Carson, which is published by IVP (£7.99, ISBN 978 1 844 745 999), and is used with permission.

Editor:
Because it is so heavily edited, many details and nuances have had to be dropped from the original and we would, therefore, encourage interested readers to buy the book.

(This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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Galatians for you


Galations for you

Galatians is a letter that is full of doctrinal truth, but is no theological treatise.

It is a letter from a man who deeply loves the men and women he is writing to. 6.11-18 is his last appeal, his last invitation to keep trusting the gospel for salvation and living it out day by day, and he decides to ‘write to you with my own hand!’ (v.11).

Internal not external

First, he wants to convince them that real Christianity is a matter of inward change, not external observance. It is substantial, not superficial. Again, he focuses on the motives of the false teachers. They ‘want to make a good impression outwardly’ (v.12).

Paul has already said that the preaching of the gospel is terribly offensive to the human heart (5.11-12). People find it insulting to be told that they are too weak and sinful to do anything to contribute to their salvation. The gospel is offensive to liberal-minded people, who charge the gospel with intolerance, because it states that the only way to be saved is through the cross. The gospel is offensive to conservative-minded people, because it states that, without the cross, ‘good’ people are in as much trouble as ‘bad’ people. Ultimately, the gospel is offensive because the cross stands against all schemes of self-salvation. So people who love the cross are ‘persecuted’ (v.12).

False saviours

If someone understands the cross, it is either the greatest thing in their life, or it is repugnant to them. If it is neither of those two things, they haven’t understood it.

The false saviour that the Judaizers are worshiping is approval. That’s what is going on under their legalistic teaching. ‘The only reason they [teach what they do] is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ’ (v.12). They want to ‘boast’ (v.13). They got into religion for the fame, prestige and honour it can bring them in the world. Their ministry, as in 4.17-18, is a form of self-salvation.

As a result of this concern for appearances and acceptance by the world, the false teachers are offering a religion that mainly focuses on externals and behaviour (circumcision and the ceremonial law), rather than internal change of heart, motives and character. The gospel is inside out: an inner change of heart leads to a new motivation for and conduct of behaviour. They are outside out: focusing on behaviour, never dealing with the heart, and always remaining superficial.

Paul again makes the most telling critique of this way of religion: ‘Not even those who are circumcised obey the law’ (v.13). On its own terms, biblical legalism cannot work. If we really read the law and see what it commands (e.g. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, 5.13-14), we will see that we cannot possibly save ourselves by obeying it. A religion based on externals and behaviour as a way of salvation may prompt pride and bring popularity, but it cannot deliver the eternal life it promises.

What are you boasting about?

Ultimately, Paul says, the heart of your religion is what you boast in. What, at bottom, is the reason that you think you are in a right relationship with God?

If the cross is just a help, but you have to complete your salvation with good works, it is really your works which make the difference. Therefore, you ‘boast about your flesh’ (v.13), your own efforts. What an attractive-sounding message: to be able to pat yourself on the back for having reserved a place for yourself in heaven!

But if you understand the gospel, you ‘boast’ exclusively and only in the cross. Our identity, our self-image, is based on what gives us a sense of dignity and significance — what we boast in. Religion leads us to boast in something about us. The gospel leads us to boast in the cross of Jesus. That means our identity in Jesus is confident and secure — we do ‘boast’! — yet humbly, based on a profound sense of our flaws and neediness.

So the gospel can be well summarized in one remarkable sentence: ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (v.14).

I am saved solely and wholly because of Christ’s work, not mine. He has reserved a place in heaven for me, given freely to me by him. I ‘never boast’ — I take no credit for my standing with God — ‘except in the cross’; what Christ has done is now something I ‘boast’ in. To boast is to joyously exult, and to have high confidence, in something. To know you are saved by Christ’s work alone brings a joyous ‘boasting’ confidence; not a self-confidence, but Christ-confidence.

Turnaround

This brings a stunning turnaround in my life. The world is dead to me. First, as John Stott says, the Christian does not need to care what the world thinks of them. But Guthrie probably gets closer to Paul’s gist when he says: ‘The natural world … has ceased to have any claims on us’.

Paul is telling the Christian that there is nothing in the world now that has any power over them. Notice he does not say that the world is dead, but that it is dead to him. The gospel destroys its power. Why? If nothing in the world is where I locate my righteousness or salvation or boasting, then there is nothing in the world that controls me — nothing that I must have.

Paul is not saying that I must have nothing to do with the people and things of the world. Ironically, if I must have nothing to do with the world and must separate from it, then the world still has quite a lot of power over me! Paul means that the Christian is now free to enjoy the world, because he no longer needs to fear it, nor to worship it.

So Paul restates what he said back in 5.6: ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; but a new creation’ (6.15). Religious or moral attainments or failures are irrelevant when it comes to salvation, because it is not about what I have done, but about what Christ has done. Because of the gospel, Paul says, I do not feel inferior to or intimidated by anyone — circumcision means nothing. And because of the gospel, I do not feel superior to or scornful of anyone — uncircumcision means nothing.

All that matters is that, through Christ crucified, we are made a ‘new creation’ (v.15). The gospel changes my future, giving me a place in Christ’s perfected re-creation. And the gospel changes my present, giving me a whole new self-image and whole new way of relating to everyone.

New creation

‘A new creation’ in verse 15 is the parallel to ‘faith working by love’ in 5.6. Paul’s point is that the two are essentially the same thing. The gospel creates a new motivation for obedience — grateful love arising from a faith view of what Christ has done. It is a new birth, a supernatural transformation of character, a new creation.

So verses 14-15 sum up what it means to rely on what Christ has done, rather than on myself. I am being made all over into someone and something entirely new.

A life of peace

If verses 14-15 sum up chapter 5, verse 16 (which, following such an emotional and stunning sentence, is easy to miss!) encapsulates what Paul was saying in chapter 3. Here, he calls living by the gospel a ‘rule’ (v.16) — it is a way of life, a foundation of everything. Anyone who sets the gospel of Christ as their ‘rule’, he says, will find ‘peace and mercy’. And they will be members of ‘the Israel of God’. Christians are all Abraham’s children, heirs to God’s promises to him.

Paul concludes by pointing to the fact that: ‘I bear on my body the marks of Jesus’ (v.17). What are these? Probably he is referring to the literal scars he had from the imprisonments and beatings he had received for the sake of Christ. The teachers of the false, popular, self-salvation gospel had none of these, because the world loved to hear their message. But Paul is a true minister, a true apostle, as he argued in chapters 1 and 2. Do not doubt me, he says: I have the real marks of apostolic authority — not greatness and riches, but signs of suffering and weakness.

And then he signs off. But even here, Paul is reminding the Galatians of the message of his letter. ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v.18) is the entry point to, and the way to continue with, and all we will ever need in, the Christian life. We begin by grace, by being justified by faith in what Christ has done. We continue by grace, not by anything we do. This gospel of grace is what the Galatians need to know, and love, in ‘your spirit’. It is not a set of abstract truths. It is a way of life, of deeply fulfilling, secure life now, and of eternal life to come. Amen.

This article is an edited extract from Tim Keller’s new book, Galatians For You (published by The Good Book Company — http://www.thegoodbook.co.uk), and is used with permission.

 

(This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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Evangelical church snapshot – what did Christian discipleship in Britain look like in 2012?


Living the Christian life

Last year the Langham Partnership conducted a comprehensive survey concerning UK discipleship in evangelical church life.

The results of the research have been published in a booklet entitled Living the Christian Life: Becoming Like Jesus. Three collections of data were made. The first was a survey of entire congregations across all services in seven evangelical churches in England, three Anglican, one Baptist and three Independent. Secondly, questionnaires were filled in by those answering advertisements in Christian newspapers and magazines. Thirdly, a cross-denominational survey of evangelical ministers was undertaken via a postal form. Altogether 1,999 people took part in the survey.

There were 12 major findings from the research which we briefly highlight here. They are as follows.

Teaching

When respondents were asked, ‘Which aspect of church life has been most instrumental in helping you grow in your faith?’ 58% said the teaching in the church services. Teaching proved useful in growing in faith, standing up for the faith, answering questions about Christianity and witnessing to others. 85% of churchgoers said that the teaching was the second most important thing that they appreciated in church life. The first was the fellowship.

Other ways of learning

While teaching was important, respondents explained that it was not the only way they learned. 65% said that house-groups were also important for growing in the faith. 20% said that recommended books, DVDs and CDs were helpful. 18% had been helped by special training sessions. 34% said that they thought that house-groups were the most important way of growing.

Depth

People were asked if they thought their faith had grown in the past year. 84% said it had and 24% said that it had grown a lot. What were the key factors that caused the difference? 53% said that seeing answers to prayer had really helped their faith. 52% cited personal study and prayer. Around 20% highlighted one-to-one mentoring. Seeing answers to prayer was more important for older folk. One-to-one direction was more important for younger people. These did not vary much with denomination or gender.

The Bible

The Bible was found to influence people’s attitudes in areas such as their family, material possessions, the disadvantaged and work. 90% of Christians said they read their Bible to learn more about God and 85% to seek guidance and inspiration. It was also used by 64% to find comfort in times of illness or crisis. However, it was found that the Bible is not influencing younger people in churches as much as it does older people.

Christ-likeness

Christ-likeness proved a difficult term to define for many people. They felt Christ-like people were: a) like Jesus in his relationships to others — selfless and caring, etc. (51%); b) like Jesus in his commitment to God (27%); c) like Jesus as he glowed with the Spirit (22%). 52% said we become more like Jesus by being transformed by the Spirit, 28% by growing in holiness, 10% by becoming a stronger disciple, and 10% by becoming more mature.

When asked who were the most Christ-like people, respondents were aware of the top two being John Stott and Billy Graham.

How long?

Just 2% of the people had been Christians for under three years. 76% had been Christians for over 20 years. This is worrying and tends to reflect a lack of priority or lack of success in evangelism. On average Christians had been attending their churches for 13 years. 39% of current attenders had always attended their present church, which means that 61% had moved churches at some time. This suggests that what often passes as ‘church growth’ is in reality simply Christians on the move.

Priorities

The survey listed six key functions of church life and asked respondents to say which had the highest priority in their opinion and which ought to have the highest priority. The six key functions were worship, prayer, discipleship, evangelism, community and service.

The results showed that worship is currently seen as the top priority in the church’s life, followed by prayer and discipleship. Evangelism is currently seen as fourth in the pecking order. Perhaps this helps to explain why so small a proportion of church congregations consist of recent Christians. Only 65% of Christians agreed with the statement: ‘The church should give highest priority to evangelistic preaching of the gospel’.

Doctrines

The survey set out 12 fairly low key statements about the content of the Christian faith. At least 94% of respondents were in agreement with all of them.

There were, however, two statements which were not agreed so wholeheartedly by respondents. Over 12% of lay people and 3% of clergy thought that all religions lead to the same God eventually. Nearly 15% of lay people and 6% of clergy thought that God is too loving to let anyone go to hell.

Church culture

Survey participants were asked to rate how far their church reflected Christ-likeness. The over-riding culture of evangelical churches was thought to be one of kindness, followed by faith, gentleness and joyfulness. Ministers thought that patience and self-control were least evident in their churches. Lay people agreed, but also added unity and forgiveness as least evident.

Prayer

71% of lay people and 89% of ministers pray every day. 62% of couples pray together and 44% of these do so frequently. In households with children, 42% prayed with them frequently.

Planting

The data for this came only via the ministers’ postal responses. A question was asked about the number of churches per church planted over the last five years. 81% had planted no church in that time. 14% had planted one church. 5% had planted more than two.

Ministers were asked about their experience of planting churches. 41% made positive comments and 17% negative comments.

Behaviour

Christians strongly agreed that becoming more Christ-like will make us more distinct from those around us and that the gospel message is undermined when Christians do not behave like the Jesus they proclaim. They also agreed that if a Christian does not grow in Christ-likeness there is something lacking in his or her walk with God.

It also became clear from the survey that the church has far more married people among its congregations than the general population and far less single people. Churches also have far fewer cohabiting people and single parents than in the general population, where together they account for a fifth of all households. Across the UK only 5% of households have any connection with a church.

This article is a synopsis from Living The Christian Life: Becoming like Jesus, part of the 9-a-day campaign, and is published by the Langham Partnership. The research was carried out by the Brierley Consultancy (http://www.brierleyconsultancy.com).

(This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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The big ego-trip


Big ego tripIn a large theatre in Seattle, USA, an overweight young mobile phone salesman called Stuart steps up to the microphone.

He is auditioning for a TV talent show. His gait, bearing, facial expression — the whole body-language package — signals that here, ladies and gentlemen, we have a loser.

Stuart is going to sing ‘opera’. As the judges glance sideways and roll their eyes, the audience sits back and waits for the fun to begin. What follows is a spine-tingling, lump-in-the-throat rendition of Nessun Dorma that brings the audience to its feet and the judges to their knees. It’s an electrifying piece of theatre that lays the foundations for huge recording contracts and international stardom.

But our young performer discovers another kind of stardom too. Within no time at all his story finds its way into inspirational seminars, life-changing coaching programmes and onto websites that promise to revolutionise your life. It turns out that, like Stuart, you too can release your inner strength, find your power and discover your destiny. Only ‘believe in yourself …’

Believe in yourself

In a London inner-city school, an eight-year-old girl sits enthralled. A teacher is telling the story of ‘mouse’. ‘Poor mouse’, says the teacher. ‘She’s forgotten that she has her own special gift. “I’m no good; I’m only a mouse!”’

‘Believe in yourself’, the little girl whispers.
‘I’m no good, I’m only a mouse!’

‘Believe in yourself’, her classmates join in. ‘Believe in yourself.’ As the children try to convince mouse that it’s ‘good’ to be who she is, it’s repeated over and over: ‘Believe in yourself!’

At the end of the lesson the children file out of the assembly room, chanting: ‘It’s good to be me, good to be me’. A school inspector sitting towards the rear of the classroom nods his quiet approval: a whole-school self-esteem policy that works.

Greatest sin

In New York, a black American pop singer is being interviewed for the latest issue ofHello! magazine. Described as a ‘global phenomenon’, she offers the usual briefing about her taste in fashion, boyfriends and the inevitable plug for her latest record. Then comes an unexpected question. The interviewer asks her to confide her ‘greatest sin’.

After a few moments of reflection, with utter sincerity, she makes her confession. ‘My greatest sin’, she intones, ‘is that I’ve never truly loved myself.’

In a small church hall in the Midwest of the United States, a young mother is calling her Sunday school lesson to order. A wall poster displays a fair-skinned Jesus smiling benignly at a group of Western children gathered around his knee.

‘You’re special!’ he is telling them.

‘Today’, the teacher announces, ‘we are going to let off a little self-esteem!’ None of the kids gets the joke.

The world of self-esteem

Welcome to the world of self-esteem. Half a century ago, if somebody complained of feeling down or that nobody liked them, that they were ‘no good’ or they didn’t like themselves, a friend would most likely offer advice along the following lines: ‘Don’t get stuck in your own problems. Don’t think about yourself so much. Instead of being a “here-I-am” person, try to be a “there-you-are” person! Think about other people. Try to get out more. Make new friends and explore some new interests. You’ll never get anywhere by contemplating your own navel’.

Today the same friend would offer radically different advice: ‘You need to believe in yourself more! Stop thinking so much about other people’s problems and worrying about other people’s expectations. You need to discover who you are. Be yourself. Learn to like yourself. Build up your self-esteem’.

Cultural change

How life has changed, and not just in the counselling room or on the psychiatrist’s couch. Now, everybody is ‘special’ and all must receive prizes. From their earliest years, we try to inoculate our kids against the hazards of low self-esteem: ‘You’re incredible!’; ‘Danger, princess on board!’; ‘What have we here, a Mozart in the making or what?!’ And when they grow up into mature adults striving for success and recognition, the message keeps on coming: ‘You just need to believe in yourself!’

Church change

Things have changed in our churches too. I sat in a committee meeting recently, addressed by a chirpy young ‘church-growth consultant’ sporting a spiky haircut and a PowerPoint presentation. Clicking on yet another depressing graph showing national church attendance figures heading southwards he announced: ‘Our churches need leaders who will help them build up their self-esteem’.

In my Sunday school days many decades ago, we sang a little song that went, ‘Jesus first, myself last, and others in between’. We would never teach our children to sing such self-negating tunes now. Why not? ‘Because you can’t love other people until first you love yourself.’ In this upside-down world of self-esteem it’s not the sin of pride that we take into the confessional, but the transgression of ‘not liking myself enough’.

No dissent

Hardly anybody disagrees with this now. It’s a no-brainer. Self-esteem ideology has gained acceptance among lawyers and academics, as well as politicians, educationalists and church leaders. In academic psychology it’s one of the most published topics in the whole of the psychological literature. What happened to bring this about? How did the self-esteem movement gain such a foothold in our lives?

The big fix

First, the self-esteem idea promised big. What started out with good intentions — to help a minority crushed by criticism to stop beating themselves up and take a more realistic view — became a one-size-fits-all solution for just about everybody. This didn’t just apply to bad feelings linked with a difficult and emotionally toxic childhood either. Self-esteem ideology made a land grab for the big questions of significance and personal ‘value’ too.

Everybody has questions about their value and significance. Since the beginning of time humans have puzzled over questions of where we figure in the grand scheme of things and what we are ‘worth’. The prophets of the Old Testament told us to ‘stop trusting in man, who has but a breath in his nostrils. Of what account is he?’ (Isaiah 2.22). Even now, in the Higgs-boson era, issues of significance continue to haunt us. The self-esteem movement gripped our imagination because it engaged with this, the deepest and most profound problem of our lives, and it told us it could fix it.

Secondly, the self-esteem idea had experts. Oh yes, massed ranks of them. And the experts told us that promoting self-worth (or ‘boosterism’ as I prefer to call it) works. They convinced us that there was enough objective, scientific evidence about the terrible toll that low self-esteem wreaks in our lives to merit radical and far-reaching changes to the way we think. They said that, provided we recruit enough parents, teachers, Sunday school leaders and counsellors to the cause, bad self-esteem can be unlearned. And soon a vast army of self-help gurus, therapeutic educationalists and ‘cultural entrepreneurs’ stood ready to fill the breach.

Thirdly, when the self-esteem movement took off nearly half a century ago, it resonated perfectly with the emerging spirit of the age. After surfing the sexual revolution of the 1960s, self-esteem ideology thrived in the new humanisms of the 1970s and the materialistic orgies of the 1980s. Eventually, the primacy of self-admiration became the default cultural mode: If we want to love one another, first we have to learn to love ourselves — right? Who could disagree with that? And hey, hadn’t Jesus even said something about loving your neighbour as yourself? We overdosed on self-admiration and, as a result, the self-esteem movement gained a powerful foothold in the Western mind, and reshaped secular and Christian cultures alike.

The big con?

But did it work? It was only after decades of promoting self-esteem that academic psychologists got around to asking this, the most important question of all. What did they discover? Had the self-esteem movement delivered on its promises? Does encouraging people to value, love and honour themselves produce the kind of outcomes we all hoped for? And, for the Christian, what is the biblical perspective upon all of this?

Glynn Harrison is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, University of Bristol, where he was a practising consultant psychiatrist and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry. He preaches locally and speaks on issues of faith and psychology, neuroscience and psychiatry.

This article is edited from The Big Ego-trip by Glynn Harrison, published by IVP in February 2013, and is used with permission.

 

(This article was first published in the March 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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Emancipating the world – Richard Pearcey’s foreword to the book


Emancipating the world

The post-9/11 international order finds itself in the grip of a global struggle ‘for the hearts and minds of people and the souls of nations’.

So writes author, speaker, teacher, and activist for the poor and hungry, Darrow Miller, in the vitally important new book, Emancipating the world: a Christian response to radical Islam and fundamentalist atheism.

The aggression launched on a fateful September day would blast into contemporary consciousness the knowledge that jihadists are waging what Miller describes as a ‘War from the East’. Islamic tyranny is spreading as ‘holy warriors’ fight to subjugate every tribe and nation to Islamic power by any means necessary, including the barrel of a gun, the edge of the sword, and the explosions of homicide bombers. If we take Islamists at their word, the use of nuclear devices and other weapons of mass destruction is far from unthinkable.

West in denial

One would expect that the Western nations, out of a sense of self-preservation, would rise up to defend themselves against this onslaught. But, alas, this has not been the case. Instead, we see halting, stumbling, and outright denial.

What is the reason for such a weak response? Miller explains that the ‘War from the East’ is being facilitated by a ‘War in the West’. Atheism and secularism have produced a moral anarchy that is eviscerating the West’s ability to rise up to meet even so basic a challenge as self-preservation.

Atheist ideologies have unleashed an assault on truth, goodness and beauty. Truth is reduced to subjectivity — whatever works for you at a particular moment. Goodness is dissolved into moral relativism — what is right for you may not be right for me. And beauty is lost in the banality and coarseness of the advertising and entertainment culture.

Suicidal vulnerability

Though this breakdown of Western culture is couched by the liberal and secularist PR machine in glowing terms of liberation, Miller is more clear-sighted: he diagnoses this internal breakdown as the source of the West’s suicidal vulnerability to external aggression.

Indeed, jihadist groups often justify their violence by pointing to the cultural and moral degradation in the West. Thus the two wars are united at a deep level.

What can be done? Can the West mount an effective resistance? Or has the struggle already reached a point of no return?

Christianity is the key

Darrow Miller argues that the situation is desperate but not hopeless. America and the West still possess the spiritual capital needed to meet the twin challenges of Islamic tyranny and morally debilitating secularism. The crucial question is whether the West will avail itself of these resources to combat, repulse and overcome this two-pronged assault on human freedom and dignity.

After diagnosing the problem, Miller deploys the second half of Emancipating the world to argue that a robust, authentic understanding of historic Christianity is key to winning both battles. This section of the book is dedicated to the proposition that the Christian community has an ongoing biblical calling to face precisely this kind of challenge, here and now in this life, instead of turning away to concentrate on a private spirituality while awaiting a future in heaven.

Commission and culture

That scriptural calling is expressed in the intrinsic connection between the known but much misunderstood ‘Great Commission’ (Matthew 28.18-20) and the neglected but foundational ‘Cultural Mandate’ (Genesis 1.28). The Cultural Mandate reminds us that human beings, created in the image of God, are called to exercise caring stewardship over the whole of creation. In other words, the command in Genesis 1.28 to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and ‘subdue’ the earth is not a simplistic call to reproduce and run the show. Rather, it communicates the Creator’s challenge to humanity to go forth into the world, exercising creativity to develop his creation in ways that demonstrate love and respect for the human race and nature.

Furthermore, this most basic and expansive of human tasks remains in effect, even though the world is now fallen and broken. The God-proclaimed goodness of creation has not been destroyed by evil.

And neither is life in this world to be disrespected as lacking ‘eternal value’ and therefore a meaningless waste of time when compared to ‘the things of God’. This devaluation smacks of ancient Greek culture, with its low regard for the material world and the physical body, unholistically viewed as a prison house of the soul from which one seeks to escape.

‘God thing’

In fact, this world and human life upon it, including existence in its material and physical aspects, are precisely ‘things of God’. To use the vernacular, they are a ‘God thing’. To act and think otherwise is to embrace not historic Christianity and not the Great Commission, but instead a subversion of Christianity devitalised by a kind of ‘Greek Commission’.

Evident in Emancipating the World is Miller’s incisive, grassroots understanding of worldviews, a product of years of hard-won experience in nations around the globe. He has witnessed personally the power of ideas to elevate and improve a society — or to enslave and impoverish. He has travelled, lectured and worked face-to-face with Africans and Haitians holding animist and voodoo worldviews, and with Muslims submitting to an Islamic worldview.

Love of neighbour

Miller has witnessed first-hand the way ideas shape not only how people think, but also the social and political institutions they create. His burden in Emancipating the World is to communicate the gospel’s humane and revolutionary power to create societies that foster liberty and prosperity. It is love of neighbour released into the fullness of creation, unbounded by privatised spiritualities or by inward-looking ecclesiastical applications.

‘True spirituality’, to use Francis Schaeffer’s phrase, covers the whole of life. Or, as Miller writes, life in community with our Father in heaven is a life in which humanity works and prays, farms and philosophises, loves and protects, so that his will is done … where? ‘On earth as it is in heaven.’

Unfortunately, Miller notes, some in the Christian community run too quickly past that first phrase, ‘on earth’. Yet the Creator calls his people to steward this creation and to love our neighbours in this present life, here and now, and not just in the life to come. To meet that call, each generation must address the real-world threats and questions that arise in their particular moment of history.

The church, therefore, as a living community of renewed humanity, has the potential to become nothing less than a training ground to educate and equip frontline responders to act effectively and concretely in the present struggle on both fronts of the two wars. As a matter of humanity, as a matter of love, as a matter of neighbourliness, secularists and jihadists should be challenged here, today, this moment, ‘on earth’.

The resistance stems not from a rebranded paganism (autonomous licentiousness or the secularised state) or from a soft-focus religiosity (you have your private ‘truth’, I have my private ‘Jesus’). The pushback, instead, emerges from the self-sacrificing love and wisdom of human beings who embrace a public and verifiable Christ who defeated hatred and death in space and time.

In the course of human history, truth can be won but truth can also be lost. Civilisations rise and fall. But whatever the present condition of a particular society, newness of life for the individual and for a people is ever at the door.

But none of this will occur without an effective cause. For, in this world, freedom is axiomatic but never automatic. A key is needed to activate the givens embedded in God’s good creation. Fortunately for the poor and the hungry, for the rich and the bored, and those strong in power but weak in love, meaning, and humanness, the freedom narrative for man has always been an eternal imperative from God.

Rediscovery

It is encouraging to imagine what a nation or a people might look like if they took seriously the lessons of this book and applied them to their daily lives, corporate structures, mission works and public institutions. This we know: the West would begin rediscovering its ultimate rationale for a free and humane way of life. As for advocates of Islamist tyranny and atheistic fundamentalism, they might not know what had hit them at first. But their bewilderment would likely last for only a little while. It is impossible to contain really Good News.

This article is an edited version of J. Richard Pearcey’s foreword to the book Emancipating the World: A Christian Response to Radical Islam and Fundamentalist Atheism by Darrow L. Miller (YWAM Publishing, ISBN 978 1 576 587 164).

J. Richard Pearcey is editor of The Pearcey Report (http://www.pearceyreport.com) and the blog Pro-Existence, and is on the faculty of Rivendell Sanctuary.

(This article was first published in the November 2012 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.

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