Helping Christians be better Christians

Recently, I picked up a small book about Jacob Arminius‘ theology of election and his criticism of predestination. The strain of Reformed Protestant theology advocated by Arminius in the 17th century would have deep influence on the development of Methodism.

One hallmark of Arminius’ theology is an appreciation for the practical aspects of theology. Theology is not meant to be a series of abstract ideas. It is meant to have practical application and impact. The author of my book puts it this way:

Genuine theological knowledge (harkening back to St. Augustine) was a habitus, a way of thinking that could not be separated from a way of living. It touched the heart, enlightened the mind, and made one charitable … Arminius understood well that doctrine (doctina) had connotational roots in the history of the church as religious teaching that enables one to be a good Christian.

Christian doctrine exists to help Christians be better Christians. This idea is something Methodists have little difficulty affirming. I find it helpful to realize that this conviction locates us with a grand tradition of the church catholic that can be traced back to Augustine and the early church fathers.

For me as a pastor, then, the question is this: Am I teaching and preaching in ways that are not merely correct but also helpful to Christians seeking to live out their faith?

A few words about salvation

What is salvation? This is a question of no small importance to believers and unbelievers alike. Here is a brief summary drawn from my reading of the Scriptures and Wesleyan theology. Please note the word “brief” in the previous sentence. This is not everything that can or needs to be written.

Salvation is about today not only tomorrow

We often talk about salvation in terms of going to heaven, and that is part of it. The hope of the saved is an eternity in presence of God, but salvation is not only in the future. It is more than a ticket to heaven, much more. Salvation is the work of God in our lives right now to free us from guilt, shame, and the shackles of sin that hold us trapped in patterns of behavior that destroy life, joy, and happiness.

Salvation began before you ever thought about God

We often think of salvation in terms of a “coming to Jesus moment.” Most of the time when we talk about “being saved” we think of an intense moment or period of time when we take an intentional step toward Christ. But to properly understand salvation, we need to understand that God began working for our salvation long before we were ever aware of him.

Even before we believe or have any inkling that we might come to believe, God’s grace is at work in us. That voice we commonly call “our conscience” that nudges us toward honesty, kindness, compassion, and mercy is not our own. It is the voice of God. It is the call of one who is leading us into the light, if we will follow. We often fight against this. We resist God’s grace, but it is there even before we know to call it grace.

Salvation fixes us

Nearly everyone understands that the world is broken. Yes, we see beauty. Yes, we can name moments of soaring heroism and mercy and grace that move us to tears or shouts of joy, but we do not have to look very hard or long to see that these things are so precious to us because they are so rare. The world is a place filled with suffering, hatred, jealousy, greed, cruelty, selfishness, violence, and despair. The world is broken. We are broken. We feel within the relentless impulses, the rage, the resentment at others, the longing for approval, the fear of rejection, the emptiness that we cannot fill, the wound we cannot heal. We are driven by forces we cannot fully understand or overcome. We are held captive by things we dare not speak out loud because they are so at odds with the image we try to project to the world.

The word we use for all of this is “sin.” Salvation what fixes us and fixes the world. God sees and knows all the things we are afraid to see in ourselves and terrified to say out loud. He would free us from their power, if we would only turn to him. If we would stand or kneel before him and drop all the ploys and tools we use to fool the world and hide from ourselves what goes on inside of us, if we would say, “God, I can’t do this. Forgive me. I need you,” he will answer, “Welcome home, child.”

Salvation brings us peace and joy

One of the first great works of salvation comes when we finally lay down our resistance to God’s grace and come to him seeking forgiveness and pardon. When we finally say, “I am yours,” we are forgiven and find ourselves at peace with the God we had been fighting and resisting before. We know the joy of coming home after a long season of wretched wandering.

Salvation begun is not salvation complete

This first work of salvation is not the last. When we lay down our arms and cease to fight against God, our struggle is not over. The sin that has bound us is broken but not exterminated at that moment. It still wars against us, now sometimes even more persistently. The ongoing work of salvation is our cooperation with the grace of God to master the sin that rages within us. The Holy Spirit working in us gives us the power to win this battle, but we must use the tools God has placed in our hands — worship, prayer, searching the Scriptures, the sacraments, Christian fellowship, works of mercy, compassion, and justice. We must run the race set before us as the Spirit transforms us into the likeness of Christ. This is the lifetime work of the Christian.

Salvation is for you

God wants you to know his peace, joy, freedom, and happiness. No one is excluded. There is no need to wait. Today is the day of salvation, if you will seek it. Call on the Lord while he is near and he will save you.

‘God’ always includes the Son

There is a refrain I hear from some leaders in our churches and teachers in our seminaries about Jesus. It goes something like this.

Jesus Christ is the lens through which we read the Bible.

This notion gets deployed frequently when people are trying to wrestle with the passages in the Bible that depict God calling for blood and unleashing wrath and devastation on the people of God or on other nations.

In broad strokes, I hear people saying that we should use what we know about Jesus Christ to help us interpret these passages, which often means that we should conclude that those passages don’t actually show us a true picture of God but are the creation or projection of the men who wrote those parts of the Bible. In short, we use the lens of Jesus to help us dismiss those passages as not reflecting the true nature and will of God.

This is not the only way that notion of “Jesus as the lens” gets used, but it certainly gets used that way.

This makes no sense to me.

It makes no sense to me because Jesus Christ in the New Testament does not shy away from talk of wrath, fire, and punishment. The “lens” of Jesus that we are offered in this exericse is usually not a complete image of the Jesus of New Testament. The lens itself is an edited view of Jesus. It is not Jesus but our own ideas about who Jesus should be that shapes both the lens and work we do with it in the rest of the Bible.

But it makes no sense to me for an even bigger reason.

It makes no sense to me because I affirm the doctrine of the Trinity.

Orthodox Christians worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three-in-one and one-in three. In other words, there is no mention of God anywhere in the Bible that is not inclusive of the Son. When God unleashes snakes on the people of Israel or demands the blood of entire villages, the Son is doing those things just as much as the Father and the Holy Spirit. There is no Jesus lens through which we can view the God of the Old Testament because the God of the Old Testament is fully present in Jesus. They are the same. If we think that one some how corrects or screens out the other, we misunderstand what we claim to believe when we sing “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” and recite the creeds.

This does not make it easier for us to grapple with God as revealed to us in the Bible, but that is okay. Making it easy for us rarely seems to be God’s primary motivation.