Thursday, February 10, 2011


“The idea of cultivation and exercise, so dear to the saints of old, has now no place in our total religious picture.  It is too slow, too common.  We now demand glamour and fast flowing dramatic action.  A generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines is impatient of slower and less direct methods of reaching their goals.  We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relations with God.  We read our chapter, have our short devotions and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar.

“The tragic results of this spirit are all about us.  Shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit: these and such as these are the symptoms of an evil disease, a deep and serious malady of the soul.”
--A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God

          If not from the somewhat dated language—the “gospel meeting” has gone the way of Billy Sunday and Billy Graham—it would be natural to assume that Tozer is describing the state of modern Christianity and contemporary Christians.  Well, he is, but not intentionally so.  Tozer began writing The Pursuit of God on a train trip from Chicago to Texas in the late 1940’s.  He wrote through the night, and by the time he arrived in Texas the rough draft was done.  Before the Internet, which allows you to find an answer to just about any question in a matter of minutes if not seconds; before microwave ovens which allow you to go from freezer to a hot-cooked meal in less than five-minutes; before Netflix and On-Demand in which you can decide to watch a movie, decide which movie to watch, and be watching in just a few minutes; before all the “time-saving” devices which have conspired to speed life up and actually leave us with more to do in less time, Tozer lamented that people had grown too busy and impatient to endure the slow development of the spiritual life.  The resulting impoverishment to our souls not only depleted our spirits but also distorted our religion and corrupted our churches.
        And it hasn’t gotten any better.  I’m not one to assert that things have gotten worse across the board—that our culture is less moral, less caring, less spiritual, less, well, everything than in the good ol’ days.  There was a lot of immorality in the good ol’ days, a lot of callousness, and a lot of materialism in the good ol’ days.  More, less, I honestly don’t know, and I don’t know that anyone is in position to make that judgment.  So maybe it has always been true that people have been too impatient and too busy to adequately nurture their souls, and Tozer’s words from 60 years ago are evidence of that.  Two thousand years ago Jesus warned people not to allow the cares of the world to crowd out the things that feed the soul, so this is nothing new.  It’s not just an issue for the modern human in a consumerist culture; it’s a human issue, period.
           But yet…I can’t get away from the feeling that this problem which has always been there hasn’t somehow metastasized in a critical area in our hearts and souls and moved from a chronic condition to an acute condition.  Our attentions have deficits, and if we try something and don’t see results pretty quickly, we give up.  We conclude that this is just the way it is, or that spiritual nurture is for those really dedicated fanatics, or that we’re just not wired that way.
            But if it’s the way it is, it’s not the way God intends it to be, nor is it the way it has to be.  And it is for the really dedicated, but that isn’t supposed to be an elite group any more than people dedicated to living is supposed to be an elite group.  And we’re not wired that way, we are wired for spiritual living because we are spiritual as well as physical beings—but the wiring has gotten messed up over the course of a few thousand years.  And there is no quick fix for a problem that has been developing for thousands of years.
          Eugene Peterson describes discipleship as a long obedience in the same direction, and surely he’s on to something.  
          I just sometimes wonder if I’m too busy to listen.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Grace Conditions

Is God’s grace ever conditional?  Is there a little box at the bottom of the salvation agreement that you must check, saying that you agree to abide by the terms and conditions?
If this sounds like a silly question—and it should—it is unfortunately a question that needs to be asked and answered, for in some Christian groups grace really does seem to have conditions attached to it.  Classic five-point Calvinism, for instance, speaks of Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace i.e. that God chooses (elects) who is going to be saved and who isn’t, and he chooses according to his own reasons—or even whims—and there is nothing anyone can do about it.  God either chooses you, or he doesn’t.  And because God chooses and there’s nothing you can do about it, his grace is irresistible.  If you are chosen, you will be saved, even if you don’t want to be.  (To be fair, a Calvinist would say that if you are chosen, you will want to be saved, but the fact remains that whether you want to be or not is irrelevant.  All that matters is whether God wants you to be saved.)
So election and predestination are unconditional, but grace isn’t.  Its condition is whether or not you happen to fall into the “elect” category.
But I have no real beef with Calvinists.  I don’t agree with them, but I understand their position.  I have a lot of friends who are Calvinists, and there is much upon which we agree, and we work together in those areas.
More harmful are those who want to divide Christians into two groups, nominal Christians, and Real Christians—and who feel they can tell the difference.  Depending on what is important to the individuals and the groups with which they associate, a Real Christian is determined by their position on certain doctrines, or certain political positions, or their views on evolution vs. creation, the nature of Scripture, or matters of church polity, even the style of worship music preferred.
It’s something that is easy to fall into.  We all know people who appear to be going through the motions of following Jesus, but to all appearances are Christian in name only—hence the term nominal.  And the more you dig into Scripture and matters theological, the more you tend to see some things as more central to what it means to be a follower of Jesus than others.  And when other Christians seem to “major on the minors,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling somewhat superior.  You know, they’re going through the motions while you are focusing on the stuff that really matters.  Or even worse, that they are taking Christianity down a wrong or destructive path while you are trying to follow the true path of Christianity.
And that’s a very dangerous path to take, because even if you are right about the majors and minors—or maybe especially if you are right about the majors and minors, this is the path of self-righteousness.
In other words, you can be right about important things and still have a log in your eye (Matthew 7:1-5).  And if you have a log in your eye, it doesn’t really matter how right you are.
The fact is that God’s grace isn’t conditional.  It just is.  It is who God is, and how God operates.  His grace is unconditional, unlimited, amazing, overwhelming, comprehensive, incomprehensible—and absolutely necessary, for no one can be saved without it.  In fact, Paul said that if grace isn’t unconditional—if there is something you have to do to get it, it isn’t grace at all.  But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace (Romans 11:6).
Our challenge is to resist the tendency to receive grace unconditionally but give it conditionally.  This goes not only for when someone sins against us or someone we love, but also for when someone simply disagrees with our cherished positions.  To disagree is not to sin, and to feel or act otherwise is the ultimate log-in-the-eye position.
We who receive grace unconditionally must also give grace unconditionally, and that is hard, maybe the hardest thing in the world to do.  But whoever said following Jesus was easy?
Ironically, those who have the most difficulty giving unconditional grace to others often have difficulty giving it to themselves.  If being wrong about some theological or ecclesial matter is sin and grounds for disqualification from being a Real Christian, then you can’t afford to admit that you may be wrong.  And you have to argue for your position even when it’s clear your position is untenable.
At any given time, all of us are right about some things and wrong about others.  We shouldn’t get puffed up about the areas in which we are right nor down on ourselves where we are wrong. 
Ultimately what’s important is not being right, but being in right relationship with a God of Amazing Grace.