Feb 15

Escape from the Transactional Gospel

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Evangelist: “This is the deal: You place your faith in Jesus and God will save you. All you have to do is say the prayer, repent and give yourself to Jesus, make him Lord of your life, which means obey him, tell someone about your decision, find a good church, and Jesus will forgive your sins. How good a deal is that?”

Lost Soul: “But you said it’s free, that I didn’t have to do anything.”

Google “transactional gospel” and you will find hundreds of blogs criticising the “if I do this, then God will do that” formula. The prosperity gospel is a subset. But the Covenant of God is not a contract we enter with God.

Google “how to become a Christian” and you get millions of websites giving you the transactional steps you need to take to gain God’s approval. The Reformers, concerned to avoid a transactional gospel, came up with the “regeneration precedes faith” doctrine to ensure salvation is solely God’s work. But this understanding of the sovereignty of God goes too far. It makes God responsible for everything and does not allow God the freedom to create humans with free will. Can we escape this impasse? I think so.

Faith is the key. It is significant that God uses faith in salvation, and not hope or love. We are not responsible for producing the gospel that we receive by faith. The object of faith is not of our making. If we think of faith as what we believe about Christ, we cannot avoid responsibility for having those beliefs. God would decide whether to save us by checking our brains for the doctrines we hold as true to. It would be like having a doctrinal exam to get into heaven. If we jettison this understanding of faith, how would we decide who are Christians? But we are not supposed to. Jesus said “Do not to judge” one another (Luke 6:37a). If people in another denomination say they are Christians, rejoice and treat them accordingly. Disunity in the church is worse than doctrinal errors.

Instead, we might think of faith as a gift from God (Eph 2:8) in much the same way that our faculty of sight is a gift from God. As such, everyone has faith, and the difference is in what they receive through faith. Jesus applied the image of the eye of the body (faith) making us full of light or full of darkness (Matt 6:22-23). To use a more contemporary metaphor, faith is like a radio receiver. We turn the radio on and tune to a particular station. But the receiver does not save us, nor does tuning in to God’s Word, but God’s Word saves us. Jesus came to save the entire world. God broadcasts the message of salvation to everyone, but not everyone wants to receive it. Unlike a radio station, God knows who are listening, that is, those who receive Jesus by faith. The gospel proclamation is powerful to make alive the human spirit (1 Cor 1:18). With this understanding of faith, we may replace the Reformers’ proposition with “regeneration operates through faith.” Human free will and responsibility remain intact and salvation is a free gift from God.

So, there is no transaction, nor is it needed. People cannot gain salvation by anything they do. There is no deal. God intends the gospel message for everyone. People have an entirely passive role in salvation, but an active role in hearing the gospel. As Jesus said, the Kingdom of God is near “and everyone tries to enter it by force” (Luke 16:16b). As for salvation, we trust that Jesus will save us. Salvation and ultimate freedom from sin is the eager hope of everyone living by faith in God’s Kingdom (Gal 5:5).

Things such as saying “the sinner’s prayer”, confessing sins, being baptised, going to church, etc., play no role in a person’s salvation. These are things the born-again believer does in God’s Kingdom. Just as loving others is a fruit of the Spirit and evidences his presence with us, such things also evidence our salvation, but do not cause God to save us. We cannot, and do not need to, negotiate our salvation.

Proclaiming the gospel this way frees us of the cringe factor of feeling we are manipulating someone to change his or her mind so we can make the sale. The Parable of the Sower shows that the Word of God will produce a harvest of righteousness in fertile soil (Matt 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15). As Jesus explained of those who refuse to receive the gospel, “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look but never perceive.” (Matt 13:14) while to people of faith, Jesus said, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.” (Matt 13:16). Faith as a faculty allows us to escape the transactional gospel.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.5icm.org.au/blogs/2019/02/15/escape-from-the-transactional-gospel/

Feb 05

Was Jesus Rich?

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2 Corinthians 8:9 (NRSV)
“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

The promoters of prosperity theology teach that Jesus was rich. Doesn’t 2 Cor 8:9 say as much? Phil Pringle re-worded the verse to say, “Jesus became poor regarding the wealth of this world on the cross, that those who receive Him may become rich with the wealth of this world.” [Phil Pringle, Dead for Nothing?: What the Cross Has Done for You (Tulsa, OK: Harrison House, 2007), 58]. Ken Copeland in his Believer’s Voice of Victory magazine, Oct 2018 issue, listed his reasons.

  1. Jesus’ father was a businessman wealthy enough to pay taxes;
  2. the presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh given by the wise men were very valuable;
  3. Jesus’ ministry had a treasurer, which indicates they had a large amount of money;
  4. Jesus financed his ministry team and gave to the poor;
  5. Creflo Dollar and Jerry Savelle add that Jesus wore expensive clothing as noted by the Roman guards at Jesus’ crucifixion.

This teaching allows the prosperity teachers to vindicate their affluent lifestyles as blessings from God. But to do so, they twist scriptural teaching. First, they take 2 Cor 8:9 out of context to assure their “partners” that if they give to their ministries, God will reward them financially.

Paul wrote to the church at Corinth telling them of the Macedonians who despite their poverty gave to the collection for the saints as they were able (2 Cor 8:2). Apparently, God did not bless the Macedonians for their generosity because they remained poor. Neither did God deliver the saints in Jerusalem from the curse of poverty. Far from assuring the Corinthians of financial blessing, Paul says the saints in Judea may one-day be helping them (2 Cor 8:14).

My replies to the arguments for Jesus being wealthy are as follows.

  1. Joseph was a carpenter, not a wealth businessman. When Jesus’ parents brought him to the temple for Mary’s purification, they could only afford “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”, the offering of the poor (Luke 2:24).
  2. The gifts from the wise men would have been useful in funding his family’s escape to Egypt but would have been spent long before Jesus started a public ministry.
  3. Having a treasurer does not mean that an organisation has abundant wealth. I am the treasurer of a small charity which needs to manage its meagre funds carefully. Besides, Scripture does not call Judas a treasurer but the keeper of the common purse which he stole from (John 12:6; 13:29).
  4. As Paul said, the poverty-stricken Macedonians followed Jesus’ example and gave generously to the poor as they were able. Jesus’ disciples knew he gave to the poor (John 13:29). But, you do not need to be rich to give to the poor.
  5. Jesus’ seamless robe worn to the Passover, arrest and crucifixion does not mean he was rich. It was probably given to him by his supporters since he claimed not to wear fine clothing (Luke 7:25). It is only noteworthy because the soldiers cast lots for the garment in fulfilment of prophecy.

Although Jesus at one stage lived in a house at Capernaum (Mark 2:1), later he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Matt 8:20b. He probably was neither rich nor poor. So, if Jesus was not rich what does 2 Cor 8:9 mean?

Christ becoming poor refers primarily to the incarnation (see Phil 2:7; John 17:5), not to the circumstances of Jesus’ life or his crucifixion which follow from the Son of God’s gracious act of taking on human form. Jesus’ wealth on earth is not the point. Paul refers to the riches of Jesus’ followers as their salvation in Christ. Paul urged them to give of whatever wealth they have in service of righteousness: He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.” (2 Cor 9:10). The Macedonians were eager to give out of their poverty because of their joy at receiving the mercy of Christ. Likewise, God would bless the Corinthians in their giving.

Worldly wealth in God’s Kingdom is a means to the greater end of loving and serving others. Amassing wealth can only be vindicated by spending it in delivering justice for the poor (Prov 16:8). Giving to the poor does not mean you are not poor yourself. But for the rich to part with their money is, for many, too difficult (Matt 10:22).

Permanent link to this article: http://www.5icm.org.au/blogs/2019/02/05/was-jesus-rich/

Jan 31

Proverbial Wisdom

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We should label the book of Proverbs in the Bible “handle with care”. Proverbs are not statements of absolute truth. We might assign them this status because King Solomon wrote most of them, and Solomon was reputed to be the world’s wisest man. Their inclusion in Scripture means God inspired them. But are proverbs intended to be nuggets of truth? We need to interpret them in context.

One reason to suspect there is more to Proverbs than the face value meaning of a proverbial saying is that some proverbs are contradictory. They have this in common with non-scriptural proverbs (e.g. “Too many cooks spoil the broth” opposes “More hands make light work”). King Solomon raises another issue in the book of Ecclesiastes. Things often turn out unfairly in a fallen world: “All is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Ecc 1:14; 2:17; 4:4, 16). Proverbial claims sometimes do not come to fruition.

A case that highlights this issue is the misuse of Proverbs to support prosperity theology. Proverbs 3:9-10 (NRSV) appears to link righteousness with wealth:“Honour the LORD with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.” So, if you are a faithful and generous giver, you will enjoy prosperity. You can’t out-give God, right? But the verses that follow this proverb declare wisdom is better than wealth: “Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.” (Prov 3:13-14).

The book of Proverbs acknowledges that the unrighteous gain wealth: “The timid become destitute, but the aggressive gain riches.” (Prov 11:16b). Injustice pervades the world: “The field of the poor may yield much food, but it is swept away through injustice.” (Prov 13:23). “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but dismay to evildoers.” (Prov 21:15). This proverb presumes justice is often not done.

Prosperity is not coordinate with righteousness. Besides, righteousness delivers more than mere wealth. “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” (Prov 10:2). In contrast to those who urge people to sow their money into their ministry, Proverbs urges us to sow righteousness: “The wicked earn no real gain, but those who sow righteousness get a true reward.” (Prov 11:18).

Churches that teach prosperity theology use “Giving Talks” to assure Christians that God will look after them financially if they are faithful in giving and it is okay to seek wealth so they can give more to the work of God. In so doing, they inadvertently teach that those who are poor must have failed to live righteous lives. But is this how Christians should view worldly riches? Even Proverbs teaches, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold. (Prov 22:1).

Proverbs do not teach that wealth is good and poverty is bad but, “Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice.” (Prov 16:8). Prosperity theology teachers can only find sporadic examples of their claim that God blesses their supporters financially. Abraham, Moses and Israel did not receive everything that God promised them (Ps 44; Heb 11). The reality is that righteous behaviour is no guarantee of blessing and prosperity this side of the grave. Success and riches may follow proverbial hard work, but sometimes failure and injustice results.

God asks us, no matter what our circumstances, to trust him to ultimately establish justice. Perhaps Solomon used proverbs to cause people to think more deeply about life? Proverbs encompass both the good life and injustice. But either way, God invites us to respond in righteousness.

In this blog, I have drawn on Raymond C. Van Leeuwen’s article “Wealth and Poverty: System and Contradiction in Proverbs” (Hebrew Studies, 33, 1992).

Permanent link to this article: http://www.5icm.org.au/blogs/2019/01/31/proverbial-wisdom/

Jan 19

It’s the law of God, right?

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Have you ever heard someone say: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it”? It reminds me of a child responding to a parent’s instruction with “Why?” and the parent saying, “Because I said so.” That ends the conversation. But God wants us to pursue a better knowledge of him. God has authority over us, but what is he saying? Scripture is far from clear to sinful people living in a fallen world.

What God “says” in the Bible is open to interpretation. In fact, we need to interpret everything we read and hear. A literal understanding of Scripture is itself an interpretation. Jesus did not hesitate to give his interpretation of Scripture saying “You have heard that it was said … but I say to you.” (Mt 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43). Even the commandment on sabbath observance was open to revision by Jesus (Mk 2:23-28).

I know, Jesus is God, and he is qualified to reinterpret Scripture. But Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to help and teach us. Do we listen to the Spirit? In our sin, we think we can rely on our own reasoning. So, our default position is to take Scripture as read, right? This is the lazy and prayer-less approach to Scripture which will lead us to accept the laws of Moses as if they are commandments to Christians.

“It’s the law of God, right?” What about the Apostle Paul’s objections to the circumcision faction in his Epistle to the Galatians? Some think the laws of Moses comprise moral, ceremonial and civil laws, but only the moral laws apply to Christians. The Jews of Jesus’ time recognised no such division of the law. The New Testament speaks of the law as a unity (Mt 23:23; Gal 5:3; Jas 2:10). Christians do not live under the laws of Moses, but these laws are useful in that some laws, or principles derived from them, are reapplied under the new covenant (e.g. Gal 5:14; Eph 6:2; Jas 2:8-12). They also have a prophetic role in God’s plan.

Christians live under the new covenant of God where the Spirit lives within (Jer 31:33). This is how the law is “written” on the hearts of God’s people. God gave the old covenant laws because of transgressions (Gal 3:19) to restrain sin and point to the coming of Christ. The Spirit upgrades the law of Moses that says “you shall not commit adultery” to love your spouse. The Spirit overturned the food laws saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15). Christians, led by the Spirit, now abandon the Old Testament regulations about slavery. Likewise, the Spirit has led many Christians to see that the law to execute males who engage in homosexual intercourse (Lev 20:13), no longer applies. This last issue is still being processed by a church ever cautious to change its accepted Scripture interpretations.

In the meantime, Christians should respect each other’s opinions and together seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance. He’s the Spirit of God, right?

Permanent link to this article: http://www.5icm.org.au/blogs/2019/01/19/its-the-law-of-god-right/

Jan 14

Community or Disunity

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Building community is all the go in churches these days. Although not a phrase used in Scripture, the disciples of the early church devoted themselves to fellowship (Acts 2:42). God’s people are a community. The Bible uses the metaphors of God’s family and kingdom, but a community of God’s people is a more contemporary expression. Everyone finds sharing fellowship easier with like-minded people. But it is not so easy with Christians who attend churches of other denominations. We cannot build a community while maintaining separation over doctrines. Christ exposes our stubbornness and insincerity. Disunity does not stem from our dedication to God expressed in doctrines, but from disobedience to Christ.

Revival brings people together. At a revival meeting, no one cares about which church the others attend. The worshippers focus on God who fills them with the joy, which overflows as love to others. When the church hungers for revival but does not see it, could it be because our behaviour betrays our beliefs? If we want a revival for our own sake, instead of because of our love for the lost, doesn’t God know our hearts? We would replace Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith with justification by our church’s doctrines. Division results. As James pointed out, such faith, without the works of love, is dead. The faith that justifies drives one to love others, even those with whom you disagree or find unlovely. Doubt their doctrines by all means, but love them regardless. We cannot withhold love because of perceived errors or sin because everyone makes mistakes and is sinful.

Our actions can proclaim the gospel without words or we can use as few words as, “God loves you, and so do I”. The differences in doctrines taught by the various churches are like children fighting over word puzzles. When God led me to challenge the 165 churches in my region to covenant together after the template provided by the National Council of Churches of Australia covenant, only four churches agreed. It was too much to ask local pastors to agree that the other churches are authentic Christian churches even though their denominations had done so at a national level.

Building community means we must choose to love one another and work to combat disunity. The church cannot enjoy credibility in teaching people to build community while being committed to disunity with other churches. So what do we want? Community or disunity?

Permanent link to this article: http://www.5icm.org.au/blogs/2019/01/14/community-or-disunity/

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