Saturday, September 15, 2012

Total Depravity Vs. Utter Depravity and Why It Matters for Evangelism

I am not opposed to theological categories. They can often be very helpful to describe your biblical position--or at least provide a starting point. Granted--when I tell someone I'm "reformed" regarding salvation or "baptist" regarding believers baptism  or "continuationist" regarding the work of the Holy Spirit--I am eager to describe what I mean by that--and hopefully point people to the Bible in my defense and not contemporary teachers or famous dead ones.

But some theological language isn't always helpful. I feel this way about the concept of "total depravity." Generally speaking this doctrine is intended to communicate what the Bible describes as the far-reaching effects of sin--or the pervasiveness of sin. This maintains that the original sin of Adam has a cosmic effect touching everything and every person--right down to the conflicts of desires. In other words--the depravity of sin is total--everywhere and everyone--no exceptions. I believe the Bible teaches this.

However, the truth of the "total" effect of sin is sometimes mistakenly understood as "utter depravity." This would mean not only is the depravity of sin pervasive--touching everything--but that it touches everything equally--in the worst possible way. In total depravity all men are bad. In utter depravity all men are as bad as they possibly could be. I don't believe the Bible teaches this.

What's wrong with that? 

Well. A lot. But essentially, the problem with affirming the utter depravity of man is that you must deny certain aspects of God's grace. Utter or absolute depravity denies the grace of God's active goodness toward man and in man--restraining the effects of sin in a thousand ways--and revealing his glory to those he created. It assumes no difference between wickedness in seed form--from wickedness actualized and freely committed by those who reject God's constant goodness toward them. To be utterly depraved means not only that all men choose sin, but that all men freely choose sin equally--and in the same measure.

Utter depravity tends to deny that men are still created in the image of God. That the pinnacles of God's creation--made just a little lower than the angels--are greatly flawed because of sin--but are nevertheless glorious and endowed with enormous potential for good. It can even deny God's loving posture to pour out protection, comfort, and revelation on all men "day after day" (Ps. 19:2). It forgets that God's plan was not to destroy an utterly depraved people when they sinned, but to send his Son into his creation to restore the broken image of God in man.

Why does this matter in terms of evangelism? 

In his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West...Again, George Hunter describes Celtic Christianity as having an "optimism about human nature...[seeing people] created in God's image...only a little lower than the angels and are crowned with glory and honor." Celtic Christianity viewed "human nature not as being radically tainted by sin and evil, intrinsically corrupt and degenerate, but as imprinted with the image of God, full of potential and opportunity, longing for completion and perfection."

Hunter goes on to say that "Celtic Christianity's theological optimism about human nature cannot adequately account for the Holocaust and the many other cases of genocide and man's inhumanity to man." He adds, "Augustine's doctrine of human nature does more adequately account for large-scale depravity and for much else that has gone terribly wrong" but at the same time, Hunter appeals "it is possible to observe, in most people, both sin and goodness."

As he reflects upon the way in which Celtic Christianity would enter a pagan town or village--he described this optimism. Because they had a strong understanding of the doctrine of man as created in the image of God, they believed they were joining God in his mercies and would find fresh ways to engage the culture they were in. They "studied the host culture and affirmed and built on every indigenous feature that they could." They sought "not to destroy, but to fulfill their religious tradition" believing God to be previously at work in many wonderful ways.

The way we view fallen people made in the image of God really matters. Hunter comments, "my interviews with converts indicate that, for many people, becoming a Christian involves experiences of being rescued and experiences of being completed...Celtic Christian movement suggests that it is often more effective to begin with people at the point of their goodness, however latent, than to initially engage people as sinners."

I wonder if this isn't true for most people who can remember their conversion.

All men are sinful. Depraved. Pervasively so.

But sometimes when we share the gospel we can start with the fall of Genesis 3, and forget the good creation of man in Genesis 1 by a holy and purposeful God. Hunter challenges us to not let the overdone "positive" view of man cause us to swing so far that we no longer affirm God's goodness in man wherever we can.

The good news is that God didn't give up on man "for the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10)." He made a way for his image-bearers to return to him--to redeem the glory we've all forsaken. We know this because Paul said, "when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV)."

We should talk like that.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Re-amaze the Amazement

Sometimes I am amazed at my lack of amazement.

Let me explain.

As a pastor I find myself talking about spiritual things a lot. I mean a lot. Like sometimes all day. Now--don't get me wrong. This is a calling. I'm grateful. I believe it's a gift. But sometimes I can be sharing something of eternal significance and feel very casual about the matter. Not at the level of faking it--just not overwhelmed by the reality. If you can imagine a tour guide at the Grand Canyon who can get more excited about the lunch hour pudding cup--then you get the dilemma.

There is an old phrase that goes like this..

Familiarity breeds contempt. 

I think my familiarity with Jesus sometimes breeds contempt. The other morning I read these words.  

 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
(Revelation 1:14-16 ESV)

I don't know about you, but I don't normally think of Jesus this way. Oh...I have plenty of pictures in my mind. Ask me to describe Jesus and I might talk about a child being held by a teenage girl, a boy teaching adults in a temple, a Rabbi preaching from a boat, a miracle worker distributing bread, a Savior weeping in a garden, a Lamb dying in our place, or a Victor leaving an empty tomb. I might even talk about the ascension of Jesus that left his disciples gazing up--and how he poured his Spirit out on the church and lives to give grace to his disciples. All these scenes are glorious. I may even be able to give you some chapters and verses to win your confidence. But I don't think the first place I would go is the last place the Bible leaves us with.  I don't think I would quickly reflect about a face shining like the noon day sun in full strength. When I tell my kids about Jesus, I've never thought we should probably go outside and stare at the sun for a while--or until Mom gets mad.

 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. 

You have got to love this honesty. John was the one who laid his head against the chest of Jesus. He's the one who had the nerve to ask Jesus if he could sit at the head of the table when he established his kingdom. Now he sees the King and he goes down like a sack of potatoes. No high fives. No requests. No concern about being top dog. He just lays there at the feet of Jesus--waiting for Jesus to make the next move. Moreover, the scene doesn't surprise us. It's not like we read this and want to whisper, "pssst...John...bro....get up. seriously...this is embarrassing." Rather we're saying, "good call. I totally get it. Let me join you."

But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.
(Revelation 1:17-19 ESV)

 It's right here that we get good news. Where the blazing holiness of Jesus makes John fall down, his perfect love picks him back up. Jesus places his right hand on John and speaks familiar words to his disciple, "fear not." Peace could not arrive any quicker than through hearing those two words. Why? Not because there's nothing to be terrified of--but because John is his friend. Jesus reminds his friend that he is the first and the last--the living one--and that his transcendent glory is not bigger than his immanent grace. Notice he's not one of many--but the definitive living one who actually died--not "as though dead" but truly dead--and never to be dead again.

And then he says "look at me" or "behold I am alive forevermore (v. 18)" as if to say "take this in, John--this is the extent of my love and glory. I've got the keys of Death! Death can't lock me up because I locked it up. Hell can't conquer me because I stormed the gates and won."

A.W. Tozer once said, "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us." If that's true--I need this image of Jesus--this final revelation of Christ--to be bigger in my life. I need his shining face to melt through my casualness. I need those five words, "behold I am alive forevermore" to re-amaze the amazement.

Pickles and War Stories

Last week our church planned neighborhood football watching parties for the Cowboys kickoff. We had a spontaneous move of locations to a back club house in in our neighborhood because our friends couldn't host because of a sick child. When I called the HOA to see if we could move it to the club house they said the condition was that we invite the whole community to it. No problem! This was an unexpected opportunity to potentially see many more people come.
I was dreaming big and praying for courage to invite a room full of strangers to Guest Sunday and the Bridge Course next Thursday. I was nervous with that familiar feeling when I have no idea who will show up, how the conversations will go, and when I know God is asking me to be social and extroverted when I really just want to be alone on my couch—and not a smiley preacher.

God had different plans.

Maybe it was the last minute email that went out or the location. Maybe nobody likes that particular clubhouse. Maybe it’s that the TV isn’t HD. Maybe nobody likes the Cowboys in my neighborhood. But my idea of having a bunch of guests turned into having one guest.
One guy.
One dude with a plate full of pickles and cheese.
I felt a strange mixture of disappointment and relief at the same time—and a pinch of guilt about both.
So there we were—the Tombrellas, the Dickersons, and a 67 year old man sharing a feast while the game echoed in the near empty clubhouse.
But I learned last night that God was answering my prayer in a very different way. As we got to know him we learned that he had a story to tell—many actually.
He told us how he was shot down twice in countries denied by most history books—surviving when other soldiers died. He crash landed once after enemy fire. He knew General Chuck Yeager (of the movie The Right Stuff) on a first name basis because he was his flight engineer. He almost died in Nicaragua when a mig had missile lock on him. He told me other tragedies he experienced in war I’ve never personally heard from a veteran.
I mostly listened. Nodding my head and saying the kind of things one says when you have almost no reference point.
Around the third quarter he began to talk about religion. I held back a nervous smile because I found it comical. Up until this time my evangelism skills consisted of watching football, eating cheese, commenting on the Cowboys, and listening to war stories. As a complete stranger he told me his opinions on the matter unprovoked…
“I believe in God…I believe in a higher power…I one-no one has the right to tell another person who he is…”
“the Bible is just a book about man….man wrote it. God didn’t write the Bible.”
“I mean…why do you have to pray to Jesus…what is that all about? I know God my way…and you can know God your way…and that’s that..”
“I don’t believe in hell…I’ve been to hell…this is hell now…”
It was getting intense. It was one of those moments I wish I wasn’t a pastor. I was feeling a bit like Undercover Boss at the reveal if he asks me what I “do.”
In times like these I’ve found the best thing to do is not argue for the validity of Scripture or some apologetic point, or some doctrine—but just talk about the person of Jesus. So I did.
I shared that I was a Christian and how the gospels talk about Jesus…and that he is the one who says he’s the only way to know God and sends us out to tell the world.  I honestly don’t think I did a great job—but I was aware of God’s help—and how he was giving me courage and strength.
The courage for strength to invite a room full of people to church and the Bridge Course turned into courage to talk to one person about the Bridge Course.
“I think your perspective would be really valuable at this class I’d like you to consider coming. We don’t have any combat veterans.”
“I will think about it. I don’t have any problem telling people what I think…so long as they know where I’m coming from.”
I walked to my car with the seeds of gratitude that God allowed me the opportunity to share his love with a man he created in his image, and protected and pursued in grace throughout his fascinating life—even though it wasn’t what I had planned.
I was also thankful the Cowboys won…

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"I Believe in a Higher Power"

The other night we were out with our friends Aaron and Holly and we were in a discussion about current thought of the millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2000) who make up 78 million Americans--the largest in American history. We were discussing how the college campus seems to confirm speculation that America is indeed post-Christian in thought and a place of great harvest amid their pluralistic ideas and inclusive religiosity. Even in the buckle of the Bible belt (i.e. Dallas) the current brew is anti-authority, anti-exclusion, anti-sin, and anti-trust. Lots of churches and moralistic church experience--but very little hope in the gospel. 

Spontaneously, we approached what looked like a young couple fitting an 18-25 year old profile on a date. We asked them what they thought about God and religion. It turned out they weren't on a date--but were taking a break from a court-ordered AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meeting and were having a conversation about God even as we approached them.

[Guy] "Wow--it's crazy that you approached us...were were really just talking about this very subject.." Yes. Indeed. 

We asked them their thoughts on religion and what their religious background was...

[Guy] "I was raised by scientists here in Dallas. I truly believe there is a higher power of some kind--although I'm not sure we can know who it is."

[Girl] "I was raised Presbyterian here in Dallas..but I don't know what I believe about who God is..."

 We spent several minutes drawing them out.

[Guy] "I believe that God is Love...and I'm really into believing that love is what all religion has to be about...I don't respect groups that think they need to convince you that they are right or force their belief on you." 

[Michelle] "What if you really believe that your right? For instance...what if you believe that it wouldn't be loving not to tell someone the truth? Of the good news of Christ? of Heaven? of Hell?"

[Me] Gulp. Wow. My wife went there...awesome..okay lets go with it.

[Guy] "I think it's just that I've already experienced Hell in my life.  And I know what that is." patience here.

After a while of them sharing their thoughts on religion the guy asked me, "can I ask you a question?"

[Me] "Absolutely..." praying for clarity...

[Guy] What do you believe about this? Why would you approach us?

I shared that we were all Christians and that we believe Jesus to be alive from the dead--that we all turned our back on God but that Jesus came to take our sin to the cross and make a way for us to come home to God. I shared that as Christians we want all people to know this good news and that God truly is love--as he understands that--and that he is the only God that is described as love in 1 John.

The conversation went unusually well. They asked a few more questions and we all shared parts of our testimony with them. We walked with them to their restaurant where they were waiting to be seated and they thanked us for talking with them and sharing our lives.

We drove home reflecting on the conversation and how their thoughts seemed to be very reflective of the current convictions of post-Christian Dallas adults.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What if I Don't Know Any Unbelievers?

Sometimes when it comes to evangelism I think a question that haunts many Christians is this one:

"What if I don't know any unbelievers?" 

I'd like to address this question whether you've been a believer in Jesus for many years, or you are a new Christian. Here are some brief thoughts.

1. Yes, you do. You may feel like the only people you know are Christians--and that may be true for the most part--but that's likely not the case if you really take a look around. Forgetting members of our own family we are unsure of in their relationship with Christ, what about people we work with, go to school with, or see frequently in the neighborhood? Have you taken time to hear their story--ask them questions--really get to know them? Do you know their religious beliefs? Think about all the people you interact with in a given week. Now read Acts 17:26 and imagine if God really has "determined...the boundaries of their dwelling place" to interact with you. Begin writing their names down. Start by praying for them.

 2. Don't Over Think It. Many times we fail to see the people that God has providentially put in front of us because we are caught up in looking around for someone else. We have an image of a "kind" of person that we should reach out to and totally miss the weird guy at work, the same lady at the pharmacy we regularly talk to, or the kid that asks the strange questions in Sunday School. Those are people to relationally invest in. Start there. Get to know them. Hear their story. Share yours.

3. Repent. There will always be unique challenges to engaging people with the gospel, but most of the time we have something in our hearts that we need to turn from. Sometimes this is laziness to engage getting to know someone. We think it will take too much of our time and will drain us. Sometimes it's a fear of what it will cost us to "out" ourselves as believers in Jesus at work. And all of this stems from an unbelief in the power of the gospel to save--and being overly focused on retaining our comfort or reputation. If Jesus embraced being misunderstood by people in his love for them--we have to be as well (Luke 7:34; Matt 10;25). 

4. Start Simple. The only way to fix the problem of not knowing any unbelievers is to intentionally get to know unbelievers. I know. It's really profound. But sometimes we think we can share the gospel without getting messy relationally. Sometimes evangelistic methods even encourage this. You can be trained to busily pass out gospel tracts but not be encouraged to get to know the person you're entering into one-way conversations with. You are encouraged to sign up for the mission trip--but not encouraged to walk across the street to the unglamorous neighbor and invite him to watch the game. If you want to share the gospel--you've got to appropriately open up your life to people (1 Thess. 2:8).

Friday, July 22, 2011

My Face in the Crowd

Sometimes in the familiarity of something we talk a lot about I sometimes I miss my face in crowd. This morning I was struck by the sheer obscenity of the cross--the excruciating pain of it--and the faces in the crowd.

For instance, when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus (John 18:10) Peter tries to kill the one of the guy and ends up cutting off the right ear of the soldier--his name is Malchus. Malchus got his ear healed by the one he came to arrest (Luke 22:51). I've been opposed to Jesus and healed by him on the same day too. I am Malchus.

And then Peter denies ever knowing Jesus publicly (v. 18). One moment he's seemingly heroic, the next--he's a coward. How cold must that warm fire have felt in that moment? I've known cold moments like that. I am Peter.

The Pharisees take Jesus to Pilate to get him killed but don't go into the headquarters for fear of being defiled and unable to eat Passover. How utterly blind to miss the whole point of Passover--that Jesus is lamb. I'm blind like that too.

When Jesus is bleeding and dying on the cross the soldiers value only his tunic and cast lots for it. A seemless garment. That's what was of value. Wow. Somebody took home the garment of Jesus and left him dying on the cross. I've been that guy. Well...really...I am that guy being healed by the One who both died on that tree for me and rose again.

Somebody said "familiarity breeds contempt." Finding my face accurately in the crowd helps me to be amazed by this Jesus who demonstrated excruciating love for me to bring me to God (1 Peter 3:18).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What We All Have in Common with Rob Bell

I've not read Rob Bell's latest "Love Wins" so I'm not picking a fight with a book I've not explored. I have however read some reviews, watched the video, and been a Christian for a lot of years in the religious South. I've grown accustomed to the results of losing the historic precision regarding words in the Bible like "hell," "wrath," "judgment," and intentional language like "only" and "all" and "never."

I'd like to admit that I have something in common with Rob Bell.

Not only am I born a sinner in desperate need of the grace of God for forgiveness and to be put in a right relationship with God through faith alone--I also struggle with the words of Scripture, the theology surrounding those words, and the difference it makes in my life.

If we're honest we should go ahead and more openly admit our own struggle with the idea of hell. For those who are new to the topic--hell is historically understood as the eternal wrath of God against sinners who reject Christ. It's everlasting (infinite), conscious (not a ceasing to exist), torment (agony). All the apostles warned against this wrath of God that all people deserve--and Jesus spoke the loudest of all in the gospels.

This doctrine is shocking. It wakes you up. You start to ask questions like, "okay, I get that I'm a sinner but is it that bad?"

The answer from the Bible?


It's that bad.

I once had a theology professor that said you get at understanding the love and grace of God two ways--both have to do with the gravity of what our sin deserves. You get at that gravity by either looking at the cross--or eternal hell. Both have to do with the wrath of God--both have to do with just consequence of sin. One involves a substitute. The other the absence of one.

But the truth is that we all struggle with the words of Scripture. I'm not talking about struggling in the sense of denying those truths--but the struggle that comes from not denying those truths. It's the difference between believing something and living out those implications.

For instance. I believe in the doctrine of hell. I believe in the wrath of God. I don't believe it ever ends--because I believe that all crimes against the purity of God are everlasting and infinite crimes worthy of nothing less than eternal punishment. I believe that only a love and life as pure as the only Son could take away the curse of sin--I believe he experienced the wrath of God for all who trust in him. I believe I've been rescued by this amazing love through the gift of faith.

I also believe that most people in my world don't believe in the consequence of sin, the wrath of God, the doctrine of hell, or the need for repentance and a following faith in Jesus alone.

This should break me. I mean really...really break me.

This--primarily for the magnitude of God's love in Jesus. I should be broken over my sin. Broken over my pride and stupid love for stuff God hates. Broken by his personal love to hang on nails to make me holy and cleanse me.

But also that others know this love. The sheer thought of what Rob Bell criticizes (i.e. "millions and millions") of people suffering in hell can move you two ways. On one extreme you can question the grace and love of God that such a horror exist--even denying Scripture--moving the direction of inclusivism or universalism. On the other hand, you can better understand the depth of his love and mercy--the power of the gospel and our need to proclaim it to the lost and make disciples.

Denying can happen in more than one way.