Is the Gospel No Longer Enough for Black Christians?

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Located on one of the most historic streets in the United States, particularly for black Americans, Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta, stands the venerable Big Bethel AME Church.

“Big Bethel”, as it is affectionately and reverently known, was founded in 1847, the same year educator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass began publishing his anti-slavery newspaper The North Star, and the slave Dred Scott filed a lawsuit in St. Louis Circuit Court claiming his temporary residence in a free territory should have made him a free man.

It didn’t.

But, I digress.

For all its notoriety as the oldest predominantly black congregation in Atlanta, Big Bethel is equally renown, if not more so, for a simple two-word message which, for nearly a century, has stood conspicuously affixed atop the church steeple against the backdrop of an ever-expanding Atlanta skyline.

It reads: Jesus Saves.

The message that “Jesus Saves” has been the clarion call of black Christians in America since their earliest exposure to Christianity in the 1600s. It is this unwavering, and perhaps unfathomable, faith in the redemptive power of the gospel that was the impetus for slave-poet Jupiter Hammon, the first black person in America to publish a work of literature (1760) and whose entire earthly existence was as a slave, to comment:

“Now I acknowledge that liberty is a great thing, and worth seeking for, if we can get it honestly, and by our good conduct, prevail on our masters to set us free; though for my own part I do not wish to be free, yet I should be glad, if others, especially the young Negroes were to be free. For many of us, who are grown up slaves, and have always had masters to take care of us, should hardly know how to take care of ourselves; and it may be more for our own comfort to remain as we are. That liberty is a great thing we may know from our own feelings, and we may likewise judge so from the conduct of the white-people, in the late war, how much money has been spent, and how many lives has been lost, to defend their liberty. I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks, and to pity us. He has done it in some measure, and has raised us up many friends, for which we have reason to be thankful, and to hope in his mercy. What may be done further, he only knows, for known unto God are all his ways from the beginning. But this my dear brethren is, by no means, the greatest thing we have to be concerned about. Getting our liberty in this world is nothing to our having the liberty of the children of God. Now the Bible tells us that we are all, by nature, sinners; that we are slaves to sin and Satan; and that unless we are converted, or born again, we must be miserable forever. Christ says, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, and all that do not see the kingdom of God, must be in the kingdom of darkness.” – An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York, 1787

In excogitating these words of Hammon, the question naturally becomes: what could possibly have possessed a man, whose every breath of his existence on this earth was as someone else’s property, to see beyond his station in life to something that was of infinitely greater significance to him?

I believe this question to be germane to the current milieu in America, as many black churches have begun to advocate a purely activist theology borne of a soteriology that proffers the idea that the preeminent, if not sole, mandate of the gospel is the pursuit of “social justice”, the manifestation of which is evidenced primarily by the bringing about of such realities as socio-ethno egalitarianism and the eradication of all human suffering and oppression, particularly of those whose melanin happens to be of a black or brown hue.

There are many black Christians who, believe it or not, would assert that, collectively, the plight of black people in 21st century America is tantamount to that of Jupiter Hammon in the 18th century. This is because words like slavery and oppression are applied so flippantly and, dare I say, ignorantly today as to divest them of their historical significance with regard to legitimate injustices that were perpetrated against God’s black and brown-skinned image-bearers (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26).

But at the risk of incurring the wrath of many who will read this blog post, particularly those who self-identify as social justice warriors (SJWs) or “race workers”, not every perceived injustice involving black people can be attributed to ‘racism’ (another term which, like slavery and oppression, is losing its force due to overuse.) Nonetheless, that is secondary to the matter of how blacks who profess to be Christian are to respond when injustice – as defined objectively in Scripture – does, in fact, rear its sinful and ungodly head (Lev. 19:15; Jer. 22:13).

Since the founding in 1773 of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia – the oldest black church in all of North America – the church has served as both the soul and heartbeat of social and political consciousness for black Christians in America. Organized both politically and spiritually, black churches were not only given to the teachings of Christianity but were faithfully relied upon by their members to, under the biblical precept of imago Dei (Gen. 1:27), address specific socio-economic issues that directly impacted them.

This infrangible and abiding bond with the church is conveyed rather soberingly by author Richard Nathaniel Wright who, in his book 12 Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, declared that: “It is only when we are within the walls of our churches that we are wholly ourselves, and that we keep alive a sense of our own personalities in relation to the total world in which we live.”

Interestingly, if not ironically, the forging of these bonds between blacks and the church was necessitated, to a great extent, by the hypocrisy of people who failed to live up to their own stated ethos concerning the equitable treatment of their fellow human beings. Case in point, on October 21, 1774, the Continental Congress, in an address to the people of Great Britain, said:

“When a nation, led to greatness by the hand of liberty, and possessed of all the glory that heroism, munificence, and humanity, can bestow, descends to the ungrateful task of forging chains for her friends and children, and, instead of giving support to freedom, turns advocate for slavery and oppression, there is no reason to suspect that she has either ceased to be virtuous, or is extremely negligent in the appointment of her rulers.” 

And yet, less than 20 years after those words were spoken, the first Fugitive Slave Act was enacted that outlawed any efforts to harbor or impede the capture of slaves. It was another 70 years until slavery was officially, though not totally, abolished by president Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, only to be replaced by the equally unjust and inhumane peonage system in the post-Reconstruction South.

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But for all the influences that may or may not have been factors in black churches becoming the bastions of social and political activism they are, foundational to that existence is the proclamation of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12).

The truth is there is no gospel and, conversely, no church – regardless of ethnic composition or denominational affiliation – apart from the life-changing message that ‘Jesus Saves’. It is that message which, I fear, is being lost as increasing numbers of black Christians become convinced that their primary loyalty is to an ecclesiastical legacy rooted in a socio-ethno missiology that emphasizes societal reformation apart from spiritual transformation.

It is this concern that was the impetus for my posing the question that is the title of this blog post; a burden that is echoed in the words of esteemed theologian D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones who, in his excellent work Preachers and Preaching, remarked that:

“The people, they say…are interested in politics, they are interested in social conditions, they are interested in the various injustices from which people suffer in various parts of the world…so they argue, if you really want to influence people in the Christian direction you must not only talk politics and deal with social conditions in speech, you must take an active part in them…But I have no hesitation in asserting that what was largely responsible for emptying the churches in Great Britain was that ‘social gospel’ preaching…It was more responsible for doing so than anything else…This concern about the social and political conditions, and about the happiness of the individual and so on, has always been dealt with most effectively when you have had reformation and revival and true preaching in the Christian church… My argument is that when the Church performs her primary task these other things invariably result from it.”

At the risk of coming across as facetious, let me remind you that the words “You must be born again” are still in the Bible. Open yours to Jn. 3:7 and you will find those words there (perhaps in red letters.) I point this out because most people’s paradigm of morality is anthropological not theological, which is why we fail to see the futility of trying to fix ourselves (Jn. 3:19).

A social justice-centered gospel will take you only so far (Mk. 8:36).

How can we for whom the gospel was sufficient – and necessary – to change us, expect something other than the gospel to change someone else?

To believe that an innately sinful society inherently possesses either the capacity, or the ability, to bring about the kind of equity so zealously desired by social justice advocates is both unrealistic and naive.

As Christians, we must be about the business of changing hearts not just minds (Eze. 11:19-20).

That said, however, the question remains: Will the gospel in which you profess to believe be enough for you if and when those hearts and minds do not change? Not all of them will, you know.

What, then, will you do?

What will be your response?

Will it be that of a man like Jupiter Hammon who, though a slave his entire life, kept his “eyes on the prize”? Or will it be more in line with Malcolm X, demanding your rights “by any means necessary”?

These questions are not to suggest the “religious fatalism” that W.E.B. DuBois cautioned against in his seminal work ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ but, instead, are meant to reorient us to the fundamental truth that gave birth in the first place to such revered black houses of worship as Big Bethel Church in Atlanta, and Bethel A.M.E. Church in Indianapolis, and “Mother Bethel” A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia – the truth that Jesus Saves.

Such is the essence of the gospel and the message of the church.

Apart from that, everything else is secondary.

Everything.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Darrell

How ‘Woke Theology’ is Weakening the Black Church

“The business of Christianity is not simply to make us feel happier or even to make us live a better life, it is to reconcile us to God.”

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones


There is a movement afoot, particularly within black evangelical circles, to extol, if not exalt, social justice as the raison d’etre, that is, the most important reason and purpose, of the church today.

I say ‘particularly’ because the aforementioned movement is not restricted only to the realm of black evangelicalism. The truth is there are also certain elements within white evangelicalism which, being motivated to some extent by a collective acquiescence to the idea of “white guilt“, have attached themselves to this movement like a caboose to a locomotive.

The problem with movements, however, is they invariably beget labels (e.g. “social gospel”, “liberation theology”, etc.). And labels tend to subtly, though eventually, reorient our focus from that which is of utmost importance, namely, the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, to an ethno-centric “gospel” constructed from a collective worldview espoused by “woke” theologians and philosophers who are considered by many to be the most socially and culturally aware on matters of social and liberative justice.

Again, this mindset is not exclusive to black evangelicalism, and yet it is within that milieu that this movement, I believe, is doing the most harm.

I make that statement neither lightly nor disparagingly. I was raised in the Black Church. The affinity I have for its history and traditions is borne not only from education but experience. I appreciate the invaluable sacrifices and contributions to black ecclesiology of figures like Absalom Jones, Morris Brown, Jarena Lee, John MarrantBetsey Stockton, Henry Garnet, and Richard Allen.

I spent half my life, into my early 20s, as a member of Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church, located in Atlanta’s West End in the shadows of such venerable HBCUs as Morehouse, Spelman, Clark-Atlanta, and Morris Brown, where I worshiped alongside many family members and friends to the music of black gospel stalwarts as Walter and Edwin Hawkins. In fact, to this very day, the Hawkins-penned Changed, a powerful testimonial of spiritual redemption in Christ, remains one of my all-time favorite gospel songs.

It was at Chapel Hill that I witnessed people of all ages “catch the Spirit” during high points of what often seemed unending worship services. It was at Chapel Hill that I watched royally accoutered choirs march slowly into the sanctuary to the uplifting refrains of We Are Soldiers In The Army. It was at Chapel Hill that I passed those faux gold-plated offering plates – you know the ones – with the red crushed-velvet matting, to congregants sitting next to me in pews that, likewise, were fashioned with red crushed-velvet padding as if to match the aesthetics of the offering plates.

It was at that small church on Northside Drive that, Sunday after Sunday, I listened to the verbum Dei, the Word of God, preached – from the King James version of course – from behind an old wooden lectern with the letters ‘IHS’ engraved on the front. And it was at Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church that “the doors of the church” were always open, inviting sinners like me to step out from those crushed-velvet cushioned pews, walk that red-carpeted aisle, sit down in the lone wooden chair placed front-and-center of the sanctuary by a white-gloved deacon or deaconess, and “get saved” as it were.

All this to say that there is nothing about the so-called “Black Church experience” to which I cannot personally relate. Which is why, though I am Reformed – and, thankfully, Reformed theology is slowly but steadily gaining exposure within contemporary black evangelicalism – there will always be a place in my heart for the Black Church and, likewise, an equally heartfelt desire to see a recovery of biblical orthodoxy as its primary raison d’etre.

But, alas, I find what many term “social gospel” to be somewhat prohibitive to that end in that it relegates the central message of the gospel, namely, deliverance from the spiritual bondage of sin through faith in the propitiatory and substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ as secondary to a temporal “deliverance” defined primarily in terms of the socio-economic empowerment of black people (also known as ‘black power‘) and the embracement and affirmation, particularly by white people, of black social and cultural normativity.

It is an ideology that is more anthropocentric (man-centered) than theocentric (God-centered). As Dr. James H. Cone, whom many regard as the founder of black liberation theology, explains:

“Black Theology is a theology of black liberation. It seeks to plumb the black condition in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, so that the black community can see that the gospel is commensurate with the achievement of black humanity. Black Theology is a theology of “blackness”. It is the affirmation of black community that emancipates black people from white racism, thus providing authentic freedom for both white and black people. It affirms the humanity of white people in that it says no to the encroachment of white oppression.” – Black Theology: A Documentary History, Volume 1: 1966-1979

Having defined black theology, Cone, in another of his writings, outlines how the Church must apply that construct in bringing about the emancipation he envisions for black people. He declares that:

“The Church cannot remain aloof from the world because Christ is in the world. Theology, then, if it is to serve the need of the Church must become “worldly theology”. This means that it must make sure that the Church is in the world and that its word and deed are harmonious with Jesus Christ. It must make sure that the Church’s language about God is relevant to every new generation and its problems. It is for this reason that the definitive theological treatise can never be written. Every generation has its own problems, as does every nation. Theology is not, then, an intellectual exercise but a worldly risk.” – Black Theology & Black Power: The White Church and Black Power, p. 84

There is much within the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of James Cone with which I disagree. Not that what I think matters to him or anyone else. Nonetheless, there is a degree of dualism in Cone that seems to suggest the belief that the gospel is both sufficient and insufficient at the same time.

Given the extent to which Christianity was leveraged by white people to oppress black people, one would think Cone would argue for a new religion altogether, one whose doctrine would inherently provide greater potential to achieve his stated goal of black liberation completely independent of the cooperation or concurrence of white people. Or, if not a new religion, then, perhaps an existing one would suffice to make up for what Christianity somehow lacks in effectuating the kind of social change Cone, and those who might share his worldview, seek.

But if the gospel isn’t sufficient for all of life, the question then becomes: why believe the gospel at all? If Christianity is to be understood merely as a moralistic prescriptive for the social ills of people who are of a particular ethnicity, or of the world at large, then, what is there to distinguish Christianity from Islamism, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, or any other “ism” that holds as one of its core tenets the equitable treatment of one’s fellow human beings?

“The black man’s response to God’s act in Christ must be different from the white man’s because his life experiences are different.” – James H. Cone, Black Theology & Black Power

The problem with “woke theology” is it emphasizes a teleology of Christianity that is one-dimensional. It does this by reducing Christianity to what Cone described as “worldly theology”. In other words, a theology whose primary raison d’etre has less to do with the spiritual redemption of a sinful people, that is, the world entire, and more with the corporeal redemption of people who are of a particular ethnicity to whom salvation is to be viewed in terms of, as Cone stated, “the affirmation of black community that emancipates black people from white racism.”

A recurring thought in the black theology of James Cone is Jesus as the divine “liberator” of black people from the scourge of white oppression. It is a view which, in my mind, begs the question: why does Cone see the God of Christianity – Jesus Christ – as this great liberator and not Allah? Or the Hindu triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva? Or the Buddha? Or any other religious deity for that matter? The answer is simple, really. It is because only the gospel of Christ deals with that which gives rise to oppression to begin with – our sin.

“Some folks good no matter what dey color, other folks bad.” – Cal Woods, freedman (emancipated slave)

Regardless by what label we choose to call it – ‘black theology’, ‘social gospel’, ‘social justice’, ‘liberation theology’ – any so-called “gospel” that proposes to resolve or redress the injustices human beings inflict upon one another apart from addressing the root cause of those injustices is short-sighted, naive, and destined to fail.

Above all else, the gospel of Christ is a theology that deals with the reality of the human condition (Gen. 8:21; Rom. 3:23). It is a condition which John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, describes as “a hereditary corruption and perversion of our nature, which in the first place renders us guilty of God’s wrath, and in the second produces in us those works which Scripture calls ‘works of the flesh’ (Gal. 5:19-21).”

“You are our letter, written in our hearts, known and read by all men; being manifested that your are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” – 2 Cor. 3:3 (NASB)

A ‘woke theology’ that is devoid of hamartiology is weak soteriology. Social change is accomplished through heart change; and heart change is fundamentally what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about (Eze. 11:19-20; Rom. 12:2).

In whatever sense people may or may not view Jesus as a “liberator”, as does Cone, He is first and foremost the Liberator of human beings from the bondage of sin through His propitiatory death on the cross (Rom. 6:10; 1 Jn. 3:5). It is this spiritual liberation that the Black Church – and the Church universal – must again commit itself to preach. For it is only in Christ that we find freedom from the sin that leads to oppression of every kind (Mk. 7:17-23).

“In all likelihood the revival we crave and need will come at a time we least expect through a means we too often neglect: the simple though diligent application of the Word of God to all of life.” – Thabiti Anyabwile, Reviving the Black Church: A Call To Reclaim A Sacred Institution

Now, lest I be misunderstood, none of this has been to suggest that the Church should not be involved in practical ways in advocating for social change that is rooted in the biblical precept of imago Dei (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26). Nevertheless, we must never lose sight of the fact that as much as the gospel of Christ is about life in this world, it is also about life in the next (1 Jn. 5:11-12).

The work that is involved in “working out” our salvation (Phil. 2:12) should never be misconstrued as salvation, for a liberation that is merely temporal in substance but not eternal is not true liberation (Mk. 8:36).

It is in light of this reality that I am reminded of the account of a black woman, a teacher, by the name of Eliza Davis George. History records that on February 2, 1911, during the morning devotional hour at Central Texas College in Waco where Ms. George taught, she had a vision of black Africans passing before the Judgment Seat of Christ. Weeping and moaning as they passed, many of them were saying to Him, “No one ever told us You died for us.”

Stay woke.

Humbly in Christ,

Darrell

Related:
Another question: on being woke and Christian – Lisa Robinson
The myth of race – The Cripplegate
How the social gospel is becoming the dominant theology in evangelicalism – Christian Research Network
The Gospel is not social – The Heidelblog
How the social gospel movement explains the roots of today’s religious left – Christopher H. Evans
The Marxist roots of black liberation theology – Dr. Anthony B. Bradley
What is the social gospel? – Nicole Leaman
What we don’t know about black social gospel: a long-neglected tradition is reclaimed – Gary Dorrien
Why the social gospel isn’t the gospel – Tim Falkan
Evangelism and Social Justice – Ed Stetzer
Why your morality will never be enough for God – Silverio Gonzalez

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Your Marriage Is Designed To Kill You (figuratively speaking, of course)


It is a subject that has been – and continues to be – talked about to infinity and back.

That subject is marriage.

More specifically, how to have a ‘happy marriage’ (with ‘happy’ being open to interpretation).

It is interesting in today’s ever-changing social milieu that marriage, despite its myriad definitions, is still viewed by many as a preferred means of achieving lasting satisfaction and fulfillment in life.

Unfortunately, these pursuits are usually undertaken on the basis of such misguided reasoning as: I consent to add you to my life for reasons that are important to me and, likewise, you consent to add me to your life for reasons that are important to you, and voila! – as if pulling a rabbit out of a hat – marital bliss!

But as elementary as this way of thinking may appear, it is rather ironic that the thing that motivates most people to pursue marriage in the first place – personal happiness – is very often the one thing that contributes to the demise of those relationships.

Namely, the failure by one spouse to live up to the unrealistically nirvanic expectations of the other.

Your Choice: Person or Purpose

With few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of people who contemplate marriage embark on their journey toward “living happily ever-after” by making the mistake of putting the proverbial cart before the horse. They do this by creating for themselves a visage of the kind of person they want to marry, without giving due thought and consideration to the purpose of marriage.

To harbor such an inverted view of marriage, one that values person above purpose is, to say the least, unwise. For in doing so we make marriage a self-centered proposition as opposed to a God-centered one; an attitude that leads only to disappointment in and discouragement with both God and our spouse.

This is not to suggest or imply that one should not have any standards or expectations of the person he or she hopes to marry.

Not at all.

God’s word is clear. As followers of Christ we are not to be unequally yoked in our relationships (2 Cor. 6:14). It is a proscription that applies not only to marriage – though many Christians limit it to that – but to every aspect of a believer’s life. And yet, in many ways, marriage is a yoke that a man and woman volitionally choose to take upon themselves; a burden that they each willingly consent to bear up under (1 Cor. 7:32-34).

Even so, a question remains: whose burden is your spouse taking on?

Yours or God’s (Matt. 11:28-29)?

There is a difference.

God’s Goal: Sanctification Not Satisfaction

The importance of placing purpose above person in marriage is underscored by these words from theologian Douglas Wilson who writes that:

“God is preeminent in all things, including marriage. Our marriages are to glorify God. A mature Christian understands these truths and seeks to live them out. Therefore it is necessary to be a mature Christian in order to be a mature spouse.”  – Reforming Marriage: Gospel Living for Couples

Wilson is right.

Nonetheless, “glorifying God” in marriage, or in life in general, is not easy. The reason it’s not easy is because our nature is such that we have no innate desire to glorify God (Rom. 3:11-12). Ask ten unmarried people what characteristics or qualities are most important to them in a potential marriage partner, and I would venture to guess that “a sensitivity to sin” would not be among the traits mentioned. But as pastor and author Dave Harvey reminds us:

“Marriage is the union of two people who arrive toting the luggage of life. And that luggage always contains sin.” – When Sinners Say “I Do”: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage

To glorify God in marriage means the desire of our heart (Ps. 37:4) mirrors the desire of the heart of God, namely, to display His purpose for marriage within the bonds of covenant relationship. This desire is demonstrated as husbands and wives mature in their understanding that:

“Marriage is patterned after Christ’s covenant relationship to his redeemed people, the church. And therefore, the highest meaning and the most ultimate purpose of marriage is to put the covenant relationship of Christ and his church on display. That is why marriage exists. If you are married, that is why you are married. If you hope to be, that should be your dream.” – John Piper,  This Momentary Marriage: a Parable of Permanence 

The Bible calls this maturation process sanctification.

And our personal sanctification (Phil. 1:6), the means, methods, and, yes, people God uses to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29a), has very little to do with our personal satisfaction.

Saying “I Do” Means Saying “I’ll Die”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard married people say, “Marriage is hard” (as if the institution of marriage is inherently burdensome and oppressive by nature). The truth, however, is to whatever degree marriage seems difficult it is not because marriage itself is hard, but because you and I are (Mk. 7:17-23).

If you are reading this and you are married, or hope to be, my prayer is that you will come to realize that marriage has been designed by God to destroy in you all manner of pride, selfishness, self-centeredness, arrogance, entitlement, and any other sinful attitudes and behaviors that may have led you to believe, at one point or another, that marriage is about you and your personal satisfaction and gratification.

I assure you it is not (Jn. 3:30).

There will be times, perhaps often, when, by God’s grace, you and your spouse will bring joy and happiness to one another. But such moments, regardless how frequent, are ancillary to God’s primary purpose for your marriage which, ultimately, is that you reflect the image of Christ in all aspects of that relationship (word, thought, and deed).

God purposely designed your marriage to kill you.

He did this so that, as the 16th century reformer John Calvin implored, “the invisible kingdom of Christ would become visible in our midst.”

Soli Deo Gloria!

Darrell

Image credit: thegospelcoalition.org

A Soteriology of Selfies: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well

“Come see a man who told me all the things that I have done.”
– John 4:29a (NASB)


Nearly two decades after the advent of the first camera phone, selfies remain a thing.

It seems everyone from former president Barack Obama to Pope Francis has become enamored with the prospect of taking pictures of the themselves and posting them on social media to the admiration and idolization of millions.

Me, My Selfie, and I

Though often innocent and harmless in their intent, selfies can say more about us than we would care to admit.

Selfies appeal to our vanity (Philippians 2:3).

They satiate our desire to be worshiped (Luke 12:16-21).

With the help of an ever-increasing suite of social media platforms, selfies have become the primary means by which we display to others how physically attractive we are, how nice of a car we drive, how happy a marriage we have, and how well-accomplished our children have become (among other self-exalting purposes).

“Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my mind and my heart.” Psalm 26:2 (NASB)

The beauty of selfies, no pun intended, is they afford us opportunities to formulate narratives about ourselves by picking and choosing how others see us.

Motivated to a large extent by an innate longing for affirmation and approval, selfies advertise our most attractive attributes and qualities, while concealing and disguising those things that are less praiseworthy about us.

But given that selfies are so subjective, is it really a selfie when one can so easily manipulate what others see and don’t see?

True, what other people see of you in a selfie is still you, physically speaking, but what they see is not really you.

Is it?

Seeing is Believing

The New Testament provides what I consider to be a genuine selfie moment, not a mere superficial or manufactured one.

It is a story which, more than likely, you are not unfamiliar.

I’m speaking of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4:7-42.

The name of the Samaritan woman is not mentioned in the text. Nor is her age, height, or weight given.

We know nothing about her that would be evident had selfies existed in that day – the color of her eyes, the length of her hair, the whiteness of her smile, or how well-manicured were her fingernails.

What we do know is she was a woman who lived a morally-depraved life; a fact that not even she denied (John 4:19).

“As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects man.” – Proverbs 27:19 (NASB)

The Samaritan woman had been married five times (John 4:18a), and on the occasion of her encounter with Jesus at the well, was living conjugally with a man who was not her husband (John 4:18b).

She went to the well to get water.

The irony of this is that water is transparent; you can see right through it.

But not only that.

Water also acts as a mirror.

It reflects images as they actually are.

Believing is Seeing

In our desire to fulfill the ‘Great Commission’ (Matthew 28:19-20), there are various tactics we Christians will employ to introduce unbelievers to Jesus, most of which are designed to be inoffensive and non-intrusive. Kind of like how selfies display only what is on the surface while concealing our true nature (Mark 7:17-23).

But, you see, that’s neither how Jesus, nor His gospel, works (Hebrews 4:12).

“You will never glory in God until first God has killed your glorifying in yourself.” – C.H. Spurgeon

The gospel of Christ is a gospel that is invasive.

It is that way by design.

Unlike the selfies we like to share with others, the word of God is such that it reveals things about ourselves that we would want no one else to see or know.

Not even God.

To have our sins laid bare to others is the last thing you or I would want for ourselves. (Genesis 3:8-10). But to encounter the perfect holiness of Christ is the ultimate selfie, for it is in that moment that we see ourselves for who we really are (Luke 5:8).

And it is only as we begin to understand the reality of our sinfulness in light of the reality of the holiness of Christ, that authentic spiritual transformation can begin to take place (Romans 12:2).

“Come see a man…”

The Samaritan woman was so utterly transformed by having her sinfulness exposed by Jesus, that her motive for telling others about Jesus was that her sinfulness had been exposed by Jesus (John 4:29). Subsequently, Jesus used the transparency of her testimony to bring many others to faith in Him (John 4:39-41).

The attitude exhibited by the woman at the well is both profound and challenging in its application to us as believers today.

When was the last time you were motivated to tell someone about Jesus because of your sinfulness not theirs?

In posing this question, I am not at all naïve to the fact that such an attitude would be virtually unheard of in the Jesus-meet-my-needs milieu of today’s evangelicalism. Nevertheless, to see ourselves reflected against the living water of Jesus Christ is to see not an image of a selfie but an image of self.

There is a difference.

Just ask the Samaritan woman.

Humbly in Christ,

Darrell

Image credit: netloid.com

Related:
Don’t Let Facebook Make You Miserable – NY Times

How the Easiness of ‘American Christianity’ Minimizes the Atonement of Christ

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“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:18 (NASB)


For several months now I have been burdened by what appears, to me at least, to be an increasing apathy and indifference on the part of Christians, particularly in America, to the import and significance of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

These observations have led me to the lamentable conclusion that this spiritual lassitude is rooted primarily in a collective ignorance of and, consequently, a lack of appreciation for, Christ’s vicarious Atonement and its eternal implications to our lives, both in this world and in the world to come.

In his book, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology, Dr. Jeremy R. Treat has defined the doctrine of the atonement as:

“…faith seeking understanding of the way in which Christ, through all of his work but primarily his death, has dealt with sin and its effects restoring the broken covenant relationship between God and humans and thereby brought about the turn of the ages. At its core, the doctrine of the atonement is the attempt to understand the meaning of Christ’s death as “for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).”

When compared to Christians in other parts of the world, believers in America have it easy.

Perhaps too easy.

For the vast majority of professing Christians in America, living the so-called “Christian life” – a term that is becoming more ambiguous by the day – is a relatively effortless and often superficial undertaking.

We attend church if and when we feel like it. Conversely, advances in technology have made the Word of God so readily accessible that we tend to treat it no less casually than we would any other book. Consequently, personal convenience becomes the primary variable by which we determine to commit (or not) ourselves to study to actually know God to any great extent (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

It is with the aforementioned thoughts in mind that I am reminded of the words of J.I. Packer, who comments that:

“He who often thinks of God, will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe. The most excellent study for expanding the soul is the science of Christ, and Him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity.”Knowing God, p. 18

Unlike our persecuted brethren in countries like China and North Korea, who must resort to obtaining bibles through clandestine and surreptitious means – often at risk of their own lives – we need not concern ourselves with the hazards of having the gospel smuggled in to us because, as the saying goes, “there’s an app for that”.

The stylistic nuances and ecumenical aesthetics to which we have become so accustomed, particularly as it relates to our personal preferences in corporate worship, have fostered a collective spirit of indifference to the fundamental reason why we gather together to worship to begin with: the death of the Son of God on the cross.

It is against the backdrop of this kind of apathy that Charles Spurgeon declared:

“Nothing provokes the devil like the cross. Modern theology has for its main object the obscuration of the doctrine of atonement. These modern cuttlefishes make the water of life black with their ink. They make our sin to be a trifle, and the punishment of it to be a temporary business; and thus they degrade the remedy by underrating the disease.”

When examined on the whole, there really is nothing about being a Christian in America that can be said to be sacrificially demanding.

Not really.

Notwithstanding certain targeted political attacks against Christians in recent years, the truth is that the Christian experience in America can largely be defined not in terms of suffering (Philippians 1:29), but of indulging in creature-comforts like coffee bar lounges in our churches that resemble the neighborhood Starbucks®.

After all, how can anyone be expected to practice good liturgy without a good latté?

“We live in an age where the one wrong thing to say is that somebody else is wrong. One of the impacts of postmodern epistemology is that we all have our own independent points of view, and we look at things from the perspective of our own small interpretive communities. What is sin to one group is not sin to another group. But not only does the Bible insist that there is such a thing as sin, it insists that the heart of its ugly offensiveness is its horrible odiousness to God – how it offends God.” – D.A. Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, p. 42

Christianity in America has become so accommodating, so unexacting, so facile, that we have numbed ourselves to what it truly means to be a follower of Christ (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). And, perhaps more importantly, what was accomplished for us as a result of God volitionally bringing about that reality in our lives (Ephesians 2:8-9).

As the late theologian John R.W. Stott writes in his masterwork, The Cross of Christ, it is vital for Christians to realize that:

“The essential background to the cross…is a balanced understanding of the gravity of sin and the majesty of God. If we diminish either, we thereby diminish the cross. If we reinterpret sin as a lapse instead of a rebellion, and God as indulgent instead of indignant, then naturally the cross appears superfluous. But to dethrone God and enthrone ourselves not only dispenses with the cross; it also degrades both God and humans. A biblical view of God and ourselves, however – that is, of our sin and of God’s wrath – honors both. It honors human beings by affirming them as responsible for their own actions. It honors God by affirming him as having moral character.”

Our nature as sinners is such that the degree of appreciation we have, even for those we say mean the most to us, can tend to wane the more comfortable with them we become. I can only imagine how many marriages today are being destroyed because one spouse is inclined to take the other for granted.

But, as Christians living in America, is our mindset any different when it comes to how lightly we treat the death of Jesus? Are we any less guilty of taking for granted the One who espoused Himself to us, His bride, through His propitiatory death on the cross (Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10)?

Has the easiness of American Christianity reduced the cross of Christ to a mere symbol in our eyes? Or do we carry within us the incredible weight of knowing that the cross is absolutely the only means by which a just and holy God could ever be satisfied with sinners like you and me (Acts 4:12; John 3:36; 2 Peter 3:7)?

As you contemplate those questions, consider prayerfully these words from theologian James M. Hamilton, who reminds us that:

“The cross uniquely displays that both Jesus and the Father are committed to justice and mercy, even unto death. The cross displays that Jesus and the Father are unique – holy – in their devotion to righteousness, to mercy, and to one another. The cross displays the all-conquering love of Father and Son for rebels who will repent and believe in Jesus. Such a sacrifice to save sinners!”God’s Glory In Salvation Through Judgement: A Biblical Theology, p. 416

Please understand that none of what I have said is to suggest or imply that biblical Christianity either is, or should be, based upon a life of perpetual suffering.

Nor am I intimating that Christians in America should feel guilty for not suffering, either at all or as much as, their brothers and sisters who are in other countries around the world. God is sovereign over all events that occur in the universe; and it is He who ordains the outcomes of those events in our lives (Psalm 115:3).

Nevertheless, I do caution against giving in to the allure of the kind of Christianity that minimizes the death of Christ, making the cross an adornment to be worn around our necks as opposed to a way of life to be borne on our backs (as it were).

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” – Matthew 16:24 (NASB)

Jesus Christ, who is God incarnate (Colossians 2:9), died a brutal, demeaning, dehumanizing, and gruesome death for unworthy and undeserving sinners like you and me (Mark 14:65; 15:17-20). This reality should serve to remind us that it is we who, by virtue of our innate sinfulness, put Jesus on the cross thereby necessitating the shedding of His blood.

Despite the relative comforts of living as a Christian in America, as followers of Christ we must avoid at all costs the temptation not to take the death of Christ seriously. Instead, we must see ourselves as our gracious and merciful God saw us before the foundation of the world – as worthless sinners in desperate need of a Savior.

American Christianity would have us believe that we are somehow worthy of Christ’s dying on the cross for our sins, but I assure you we are not (Ephesians 2:8-9).

There is no church apart from the cross.

The cross of Christ should not only be worn; it must be borne.

May we not let a single day pass without contemplating the inexplicable wonder of which the great hymnist Charles Wesley wrote nearly 280 years ago:

“And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood! Died He for me who caused His pain? For me who Him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?”

Humbly in Christ,

Darrell