A Rather Depressing Reality

I had a rather depressing realization this past week as I was contemplating the message of Luke 7:36-50. It might take a little to unpack, but I’ll try to be brief.

For quite some time now I have been arguing – at least with myself – that the only way that our culture can be redeemed is if there is what will amount to a “third great awakening,” led by the Holy Spirit and resulting in a reversal of so many recent immoral developments in this culture. I am in the fold of Barton W. Stone who, in disagreement with Alexander Campbell, ¬†believed we as human beings could never do anything to usher in the working of the Holy Spirit. So, it was not that I was advocating that we need to elect this person or pass that law (in fact, quite the opposite – I deplore the idea that we can pull ourselves up out of this moral morass by our own bootstraps). If you ever want to seem me grit my teeth, just suggest that one political party or one law (or even one hundred laws) will ever do anything to change the moral compass of our nation. What I have been advocating, very much in line with Stone, is that we must be receptive to the power of the Spirit, and pray for the supernatural working of the Spirit to regenerate and to recalibrate our national moral direction.

But, as I said again, in reading Luke 7:36-50 I was struck by a sobering thought – not to limit the power of God to do anything beyond what we can even imagine – but there is the issue of whether the country is even capable of embracing a “third great awakening.” Both the first “Great Awakening” (early 1700’s) and the second “Great Awakening” (late 1700’s into the early 1800’s) had a common denominator – the awareness of the masses that they were sinful people and needed be saved. Granted, there were significant differences between the two – in the first awakening the focal point was the preaching of the great Calvinist preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield. Salvation would be by the awesome hand of God, and there could be no reversal of that decree. But – the entire point of Edwards’ and Whitfield’s preaching was to draw men to God. One of the great ironies of Calvinist preaching is that there is nothing a man can do to save himself, and yet most of the greatest revivalist preachers have all been Calvinist in theology (think Billy Graham). In the second awakening, there was much less emphasis on God’s holy decree to salvation or damnation, but the emphasis on the Holy Spirit was profound. Stone himself was witness to the great revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, where hundreds, if not thousands, were so overcome by the Holy Spirit that there were widespread instances of shaking, barking, and other “Holy Spirit” manifestations. While it might not have been as overtly Calvinist as the first awakening, the second awakening was shot full of the power of God and the utter sinfulness of mankind.

So, what is it in my estimation that makes it impossible (or virtually impossible) for yet a “third Great Awakening”? Just that acceptance of the sinfulness of mankind.

You see, even as church attendance craters, and as more and more people (at least in the western world) describe themselves as “nones” (in relation to their chosen form of religious affiliation), it is fairly obvious that there is a great degree of spirituality, at least in the United States. We are a deeply religious people, just not a very Christian people. Just check out the books on spirituality and even alternate forms of religion (omitting Christianity, Judaism and Islam). So basically what that means is we want to believe in something beyond ourselves, but we really, really do not want to believe there is anything wrong with ourselves.

While there are vast differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, one similarity (however slight) is that humanity is basically sinful. In each of these world-wide faiths the only solution to that human sin problem is the power of God. The huge, undeniable, and overwhelming difference is that in Christianity the solution is the very human and the very divine God-man, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Both Judaism and Islam fail to provide either an adequate explanation or a solution to the problem of sin. However, it must be admitted that all three world religions admit, and even highlight, the utter sinfulness of mankind.

Postmodernism has eliminated the concept of sin from the modern consciousness. God has been functionally eliminated from the picture not because of the success of atheism, but simply because of the removal of the idea of sin. If there is no sin, then there really is no need for a god, except in the sense that maybe a god might be useful in the idea of an “otherness” that lifts our eyes out of the muck and mire of our daily existence. God becomes not a fellow struggler or a savior/redeemer, he is just a meme to instill optimism and good feelings. In a sense, postmodernism has done what thoroughly “modern” atheism could not – it has removed God on a foundational level, not by attacking God as much as just eliminating the idea of sin.

So, getting back to my realization. What is the entire point of Jesus’s conversation with Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7? In this pericope, a woman has (somehow?) evaded the phalanx of socially elite meal guests and has started to weep over Jesus and to anoint his feet with expensive ointment. This action caused no small matter of consternation among the guests, even to the point that Jesus was rebuked, silently if not overtly, for not stopping the display and chastising the woman. In response, Jesus asks a poignant question – if there are two debtors who both receive complete forgiveness, one who owes a small amount and one who owes a great amount, which will be the most thankful? Duh. Obviously the one who had the greater forgiveness.

Jesus’s point is crystal clear. The Pharisee, and presumably the rest of his dinner guests, did not consider themselves to be sinners. If not sinners, then not in need of forgiveness. The woman DID consider herself to be a sinner, and so was searching for and receptive to that which could forgive her. She found her forgiveness in Jesus. The Pharisee and guests lost out, not because of their sinlessness, but because of their refusal to accept their sinfulness.

Now, I am not even going to suggest God cannot do something – Paul says that he can do far and above anything that we can even ask or imagine. But in my understanding, one thing God refuses to do is to force his creation to accept something it is unwilling to accept. This is why I think a “Third Great Awakening” is unlikely, if not outright impossible, at this particular period of history. We as Americans in the 21st century simply do not have the requisite understanding of sin to be able to recognize, nor to accept, the power of the Holy Spirit. The one ingredient that allowed the first and second great awakenings to reform the culture of those two time periods is utterly missing today.

Nobody sins today, and no-one is guilty of sin. We are all victims – if not overtly then simply by association. If I violate a rule, then the rule is racist, sexist, or some other “ist,” or I simply cannot be held accountable because of my upbringing or some accident of sociality that exempts me from any repercussions. The absolute worst sin anyone can commit today is to suggest that someone can be guilty of a sin.

But if there is no sin, there is no need for a savior. If there is no sickness, there is no need for any medicine. If there are no moral absolutes, there is no need for absolution.

I am just too much of a Barton W. “Stoner” to think that we as mere mortals can effect the kind of change that so many people are calling for. I am an apocalypticist by conversion, and am convinced that it will only be by the power of God through the acting of the Holy Spirit that anything resembling ¬†a cultural change will occur. However, that being said, perhaps the one thing that God is waiting for before he sends his Spirit once again to draw men back to himself is this –

God is waiting for us to confess our sin and to express our desire for his Spirit to heal us.

Stated another way – until we really admit we are sick, God is not going to send the medicine.

Well, so much for being brief. If you read the whole article, thank you very much!

The Church Really Needs to Rediscover the Old Testament

I’m preaching a series of sermons on Christ and Culture. What has been the best source of pertinent material?

The Old Testament.

I kid you not. When it comes to speaking to the contemporary church about the dangers of lapsing into the modern malady of multiple-ideology malaise, the best biblical response is given in the first testament of faith, not the second.

Last week I preached on Deuteronomy 7, 8, and 9 – Moses’s warnings to the Israelites not to think too highly of their numbers, their seeming military strength, or their righteousness. If the contemporary church does not need to hear that sermon then I will eat my diplomas. This week I turn to a fascinating character study in the life of Jeroboam I, who would become the patron saint (demon?) of bad kings in the northern kingdom of Israel.

On the one hand, Jeroboam had everything going for him that you would want in a king. God had a prophet go and specifically give Jeroboam the detailed prophecy of what was going to occur in his near future. God specifically chose Jeroboam for his divinely inspired mission. He gave him a specific sign to accompany the verbal prophecy. God promised Jeroboam a perpetual kingship, just as he had promised David. In short – Jeroboam had it all, and then some.

And then Jeroboam gave it all away. He became fearful. He thought he would lose what God had promised him. So he set about to fix a problem that did not exist. He called his cabinet together to discuss the issue. The problem, they decided, all revolved around the commanded, and therefore necessary, worship in Jerusalem. Eradicate that problem, and you solve the potential problem of losing your kingdom. So, Jeroboam built two temples, one in Dan and one in Bethel, complete with priesthood and ritual “like the one in Judah,” but one of Jeroboam’s own creation.

Well, I’m not going to give away all of my sermon, but what does that story have to teach the church? Funny you should ask.

Today I see the church focused almost exclusively on a problem that does not exist – or I guess I should say only exists in the minds of a few academics that are so focused on picking lint out of their bellybuttons that they have lost sight of reality. The church is worried (fearful!) about losing its young members, about not being “relevant” (whatever in the world that word means) to its surrounding culture, about giving up its “place in the conversation” concerning contemporary issues.

Jesus promised that he be lifted up, he would draw all men unto him. Jesus promised that even the gates of hell would not be able to withstand the onslaught of the gospel as preached by the church. God promised, and then demonstrated, that through Jesus’s life healing and wholeness would come to the entire world. Pretty powerful promises, if you ask me. Kind of like the promises Ahijah gave to Jeroboam, although you could say that Jeroboam’s promises did not even come close to what we have been promised.

And yet we sit around and fret because a young generation demands more and more from the church to meet their needs, that the world views the gospel as irrelevant, that we are not given a chair at the great conversation table. And I cannot help but think that God must be asking his legions of angels, “When are these people going to get my point?”

Read the next paragraph carefully, because what I am going to say is carefully nuanced. I do not care if a generation (or, actually just a portion of a generation) bullies the church and threatens to leave if its demands are not met. I do not care if by “relevancy” the current philosophy demands that I surrender the fundamental nature of God and of human beings. I do not care whether we have a “place at the conversation” if the conversation is all about how irrelevant and meaningless the church is, and what can be done to eliminate it from public discourse altogether. What I do care about, and care passionately, is that the church remains true to her commission, that she lifts up the name and saving work of her Lord, and that she refuses to surrender her very nature all because of an irrational fear of what might happen.

What might happen is not really theoretical at all. All a person has to do is to see what has happened to the Anglican (Episcopal) and Presbyterian churches after they have capitulated to the bullying demands of postmodernism. The number of adherents in those churches has plummeted, even as they make fundamental change after fundamental change in order to staunch the bleeding. And, really, what is the point of belonging to a church that basically believes everything and acts identically to the way its surrounding culture believes and acts? Why belong to a church that has eliminated the concept of sin, and therefore can offer no concept of salvation? If supporting your local sports team offers the same (or even greater) sense of community, and a lot more excitement, why waste time on your day off going to a religious assembly that has basically lost faith in its own mission and importance?

Jeroboam tried to bathe his new temples and ritual in pious, even consecrated, language. “Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:28, see Exodus 32:4!) God was not fooled. In one of the most explicit, and terrifying, rejections of the plans of man against his divine will to be found in the entire Bible, God told Jeroboam, “. . . but you have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back.” (1 Kings 14:9, emphasis mine)

You see, that is what I am afraid of. We can make other gods and create alternate rituals and build imposing edifices (real and philosophical), and we can attempt to bathe those gods and rituals and edifices in pious and even “Christian” language. But we will never fool God. I am personally terrified that in our efforts to save the church, all we are doing is casting God behind our backs.

Folks, that is a horrifying thought. And that is why I believe the church needs to rediscover the Old Testament.