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Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or Christian?

So if the Christian church is “advertising” the gospel is it the best approach to push the “buying point” as saying a prayer of repentance and belief, and then follow that up with the “now you are in the family of God” proof-texting? Trust me, this is an honest question and not a leading question. And I don’t want to make it “hard” to believe in Christ. And as Mike said on Wednesday, I do not see any evidence in scripture that there is anything other than Christ’s death and resurrection which accomplishes salvation, which is attained by faith, and that there is not some separate step of “Lordship” that goes after salvation, etc. But I, along with scores of others, have led many in the process and have often ended with something like:

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” –John 10.27-29

or, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” –Romans 8.16

Not only have I led people in this, I have trained hundreds of teens and adults to share their faith in this way.

Then I read a very well done study and well written synopsis of the culture of Christianity in American teenagers by Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, titled . Through their study they write a strikingly precise summation of what I have observed in the general culture of teens and what I think can be applied to age groups much older and still be on target with reality:

“in the ecology of American adolescents’ lives, religion clearly operates in a social-structurally weak position, competing for time, energy, and attention and often losing against other, more dominant demands and commitments, particularly school, sports, television, and other electronic media.” (p161)
“…we suggest that the defacto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might well call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.’ The creed of this religion…sounds something like this:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about onesself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

How is the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God ending up with a result like this!? I know there are various contributors, some of which I have already talked about in the faith-science dichotomy and truth approach. But a large contributor is our focus on a one-time decision prayer, life insurance policy type salvation experience. If you are a Christian today and someone asks you how you know or why you are a Christian, please don’t say “because when I was 5 (or 25) I prayed a prayer…” or if you do say something like that it is only the first half of the first sentence which then goes on to talk about how the living Spirit of God is at work in your life yesterday and TODAY. (Oh, and doubts are fine! I think that is one of the greatest things about faith, doubts can be and should be aired out and wrestled with)

I don’t find a story in the Bible where a person is given assurance of their salvation based on a prayer they prayed in the past. I find reminders of individuals belief of the belief of a community of people, but no assurance. In fact when these reminders of belief are given it is often followed up with the telling of how they are still being “faithful” or “fruitful” in their belief. Additionally, Paul urges us to live, “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.” (Colossians 2.6) It seems that the greater biblical support refers to a continual faith-living, believing, or fruitful life as assurance of our salvation.

So I don’t think it is wrong to encourage that one-time prayer of salvation, and the followup “family of God” / “Now you’re ‘in'” encouragement, I just think it is incomplete. But I want to be careful, because I don’t think the “completeness” of it is to then say, “now you need to obey the law…” which will tend to be a legalistic earn your salvation approach. I do think we need to follow that up with something like, “now, daily, allow this faith to be worked into every area of your being, to the very core of yourself. You will find new ways that your faith applies to your life and community. You will be continually transformed and you must allow the Spirit of God in you to change you and display God’s character through you.”

Finally, I leave you with an approach that we take with our children (which I learned in part through some great conversations with a great reformed theology friend and is really pretty basic to scripture teaching) As our children are growing up we have treated, talked with, taught them that they are part of a believing community, the Church. As they are growing up they can choose to believe (accept) or reject that. I recognize that a child doesn’t express much independent faith when they are young and therefore are heavily influenced by our belief (this is actually the beauty of family as God designed). As each one has expressed faith in Jesus Christ for salvation we celebrated! They were born again! (The kind of beginning that John commented about yesterday) But we then watch and continually look for opportunities to encourage them to affirm their faith and express belief in new ways. Two of ours have expressed enough independent faith for us to encourage them to be baptized. As the grow and in these reaffirmations they will mature in their faith and our prayer is they will grow beyond Mom and Dad’s faith holding them up to understand the even greater cloud of those who have gone before, test their doubts, strengthen their faith and bring others along with them. We certainly share with them about a future of eternity in God’s full presence, but we more often talk about what it means for them to have faith today and how that can change their character (at Tommy commented earlier this evening) and make a difference in the community in which God has put them.

Well, a much longer conclusion that I intended, and a little different ending point than I set out toward 10 days ago. I still would like to come back to the faith-science discussion as I have many more thoughts related to that; but it will wait for another day (probably not tomorrow 🙂 )

Born and Born-Again

When my wife and I were having our first child, we determined that it was pretty important to make sure that she and our daughter were provided for if I were to die unexpectedly, so we researched the options and I took out my first life insurance policy. I set it to withdraw the monthly premiums automatically from my bank account and don’t think about it any more. The only time I thought about it was when I changed my bank account and received a letter from the company to make sure the premiums continued to get paid. I am concerned that this is a similar story to how many experience “praying to receive Jesus.”

We saw yesterday that the word “believe” is the central instruction on being “saved” from our condition of separation from our eternal creator. So, what is it to “believe”? It seems that in our times it is mostly understood as “think the right thoughts” or “know the right information” or “agree with a set of expressed truths”. But this is not what it is primarily about. “Believe” in the Bible comes from the verb form of the word for “faith”, but our English language doesn’t have a verb form of faith. To believe something is faithing. Active faith is belief. Certainly one must know something about the specific truth to believe it, but it is not merely knowing something, it is acting on our knowing. These actions can be big or small, but it is active.

The most concise chapter in the Bible about faith is Hebrews 11. Read how it begins: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people…” and the whole chapter goes on to list action after action of people believing.

It is the orientation of one’s life and actions around the person of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and forgiveness of our sins. By the way, I think this is why baptism is mentioned so many times (though not always) with “believe”, it is active faith, a public proclamation. In an excellent, and exhaustive work on faith, Paul Tillich expresses this even more emphatically:

“Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements. Faith is the most centered act of the human mind. It is not a movement of a special section or a special function of man’s total being. They all are united in the act of faith. But faith is not the sum total of their impacts. It transcends every special impact as well as the totality of them and it has itself a decisive impact on each of them.” (Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, 1957 ; p4-5)

Secondly, the Bible doesn’t instruct us to just say a prayer to receive Jesus and we are done. I have been wondering if people walk away from Christianity because they did the prayer thing and it has no further impact on their life. Like a life insurance policy, just make sure the premium gets taken out of the “bank” once a week by going to church (or at least twice a month). To be fair, I admit that this isn’t the teaching of most churches, but it has become too familiar in the action (belief) of peoples’ lives in American Christianity.

Furthermore, I am even more concerned about this in Christian believers’ households because the angst of many parents until their child “prays to receive Christ”, after which they stop the continual teaching, mentoring, and encouraging their child because “now they are ‘IN’ for eternity”. I celebrate BIG TIME when a child expresses faith in Christ, in fact one of my nieces took that step on Christmas Eve! But let’s treat re-birth (born-again concept from John 3.16) in the same way we treat birth. Could you image, parents give birth to their baby and then just let life happen, because now their born? Life wouldn’t “happen” very long and these parents would be in jail shortly after the baby’s life ends. After birth, we nurture new life, we continue this in such a way until they are able to live independently. This is a strong burden of mine after 18 years of working with teenagers, many of whom give a testimony of praying to receive Christ at a young age and yet are no different than their peers who have never had such an experience. Believers, we must disciple our children in a continual conversion process and a series of commitments at various life stages and crises.

It is reported that one of the greatest influencers of converts in recent history, Billy Graham, said, “Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion – it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ” (multiple internet sites attribute this saying to Graham, but I was unable to find any source citation) It is important to emphasize both an instantaneous conversion (although many times imperceptible) as well as an ongoing transformation.

Tomorrow I will bring this series to a close with an additional part of this point and a then bring it back around to where I started 9 days ago.




What Is The Church “Selling” With The Gospel?

Where in the Bible does God tell us to pray a prayer to ask Jesus into our heart?

I don’t find it either…

You would think that something so vital to the gospel that the church preaches would be there, apparent for all to see. What are we “advertising” to a world of people? What are all the revival rallies and evangelism efforts seeking to get people to “buy”? If the problem is that humanity is separated from God by our sin and will therefore be separated from God for eternity, what must we do to be saved?

Before my fellow Christians start throwing things, let’s go to 3 passages that get us the closest I have seen to “praying a prayer to ask Jesus in our hearts” and then consider a proposal as I briefly share some of my experience.

Acts 2.37-39 “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.””

This comes after a powerful sermon preached by Peter. People are convicted, they want to respond and Peter tells them to repent & be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, and the Holy Spirit will be given to them.

Acts 16.29-34
“And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.”

This time we see a jailer who is about to loose his career when he thinks all the prisoners have escaped, so he is ready to kill himself on his sword. Paul and Silas assure him that all the prisoners are there and he is so relieved that his life is spared he asks how to respond. He is told to “faith in the Lord Jesus”. I love it that later that night they are all sitting around the dinner table rejoicing that the jailer believed in God…why, because he was ALIVE, he didn’t kill himself and his family was joyful.

Romans 10.9-11,
“because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” …13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” “

Here we have a command to say with our mouth, and faith in our heart that the resurrection of Jesus happened. Then it ends with a statement assuring that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Now, as I said, these are the 3 that, in my opinion, get us the closest to what we hear so often of “pray to receive Christ” or “pray to ask Jesus into your heart”. My point is not so much about whether we should encourage/lead someone in a prayer to receive Jesus, but I do have concern about what that person has been told or thinks he/she is doing?

Ok…I’m going to push the “pause” button here for today. My recent posts have been lengthy and some weighty, but more importantly, before I further develop what I am thinking, I would love to hear from the readers on what I have said thus far. Tomorrow, I will publish my developing thoughts and experience.

Two parting questions –
Where else does the Bible instruct us on praying a prayer to be saved?
How is the presentation of the message of the church heard concerning how someone must be saved?

Truth in Advertising and the Gospel

So in light of this conversation about experience with truth claims being an evidence of actual truth, let me comment some about our cultural experience with advertising and what I believe to be its effects on the Christian gospel.

I think advertising has been around since the beginning of creation…the creation account describes the first “ad campaign”. You might naturally begin at Genesis 3 to say that Satan put on the first ad campaign, but I would go before that.

But first let’s consider the 6 phases of the Hierarchy of Effects model of advertising (as described on Wikipedia):

Get Fat Advertising

An 1985 advertisement for a weight gain product (Image from Wikipedia)

  1. Awareness
  2. Knowledge
  3. Liking
  4. Preference
  5. Conviction
  6. Purchase

Now, In Genesis 2, the expanded story of creation goes into some details about the interaction between God and creation. God created Adam and then made the statement, “It is not good that the man should be alone…”(v18). “Awareness.” Then God tasked Adam to name all the animals who were in pairs…Adam noticed something missing(v19-20). “Knowledge.” Following this, God did a little surgery, created woman, woke Adam up and presented her to him(v21-22). “Liking” Adam definitely liked what he saw, didn’t have many options to express a “preference”, quickly formed a “conviction” and made the “purchase” (v23-25).

It seems that the very first ad campaign was centered around a woman; makes sense that most modern day ad campaigns are centered around the woman too 🙂

But from there the next ad was based on a deception, an illegitimate way to fulfill a legitimate desire (Genesis 3. 1-7). So advertising is not a new invention. But advertising in modern history is unique and prolific. Our economy is dependent upon advertising. “Yankelovich, a market research firm, estimates that a person living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day, compared with up to 5,000 today.” (NY Times article, Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad, 2007) And in modern times, it has become out of control with deception:

James Laver, a British historian, broadly described advertising during the 19th century—a time when companies made outrageous claims which could not be proved, and with practically no regulation—as follows:

“Advertising is as old as Humanity: indeed, much older; for what are the flaunting colours of the flowers but so many invitations to the bees to come and “buy our product.” Advertising might be defined as any device which first arrests the attention of the passer-by and then induces him to accept a mutually advantageous exchange.”

In other words, advertising may be described as a mechanism for 1) getting the attention of an individual and then, 2) persuading that individual to engage in some kind of action—ultimately, to buy some type of service or product.
-David from

So we are constantly bombarded with messages from all sources and means seeking to persuade us to engage in some kind of action based on a certain proposed truth. Of course we are supposed to be protected by laws that seek to govern the truth of advertising in our society (that’s why we get the “fast talkers” at the end of car and drug commercials who are telling “the fine print” they are legally required to say). But all of us have bought into something that promised but didn’t deliver. And today’s marketing is even more powerful (keeping up with the culture), because it sells you a feeling, mostly through telling a story or convincing you of an alternate reality than you know…which conveniently can be achieved through their product/service.

Therefore, companies are selling “the good life”, offering you to “have it your way”, or selling “guaranteed joy”

Now think about how the gospel has been presented over the years…as a bill of goods based on truth to change your life and give you a different reality (even for eternity). But what about those that it doesn’t “work” for or the “product” testimony about it not “working” for someone else? Just today one of my coworkers gave me a stack of Keurig cups for my coffee maker in my office. I love my Keurig coffee maker and have had it for almost a year now, no problems. He just got one and it quickly broke. He returned it and donated the coffee to me! (of course I’m going to share, come on by) He deemed that the coffee maker isn’t worth the hassle. Now I am simplifying his experience for the illustration, and over-simplifying it to apply to the gospel, but this is how we operate. Religion/faith is not working for me, or someone else I know, so it’s not a product I am going to use.

So how are we preaching the gospel and what promises are we making…do we need some fast talkers after our sermons to give the disclosure statements 🙂

I jest, but tomorrow I want to continue on this theme to look at our presentation of the truth in what we call the good news…

Let me know your thoughts on truth in advertising.

What Difference Does Truth (however you define it) Make?

This is the testimony of one anti-theist:

We are reconciled to living only once, except through our children, for whom we are perfectly happy to notice that we must make way, and room. We speculate that it is at least possible that, once people accepted the fact of their short and struggling lives, they might behave better toward each other and not worse. We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion. And we know for a fact that the corollary holds true – that religion has caused innumerable people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow.
-(Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything; 2007, p5,6)

Hitchens not only gives testimony to his belief structure/philosophy but in the same breath gives a broad backhand to the faith of Christianity. Similarly, consider the words of one Christian turned agnostic, Charles Templeton:

The record of the Christian church is a checkered one. Over twenty centuries it has done immeasurable good…But the church has seldom been at its best. Too often it has been a negative influence. Too often it has stood in the way of progress…
And despite the fact that Jesus enjoined his followers to love one another, most don’t, each believing that only they have seen the true light of the Gospel and that all the others are in error.
-(Charles Templeton, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith, 1996; p127,129)

And I could go on and on quoting those who have rejected or walked away from Christian faith.
As always, there is another side of the “coin”. Consider the words of those, still philosophically opposed to the Christian faith, who have a different testimony:

[William H.] Lecky spent his life advancing the cause of rationalism, attacking Christianity, and the supernatural. Yet read what Lecky has to say about Christ and Christianity: “It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which through all of the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hears of men with an impassioned love, has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions, and has been not only the highest pattern of virtue, but also the strongest incentive to its practice, and has exercised so deep an influence that it may truly be said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and soften mankind than all of the dispositions of philosophers and exhortations of moralists.” (D. James Kennedy, Skeptics Answered, 1997; p91)

Thomas Huxley / Image from Wikipedia

I have always been strongly in favor of secular education, in the sense of education without theology. But I must confess that I have been no less seriously perplexed to know by what practical measures the religious feeling, which is the essential basis of conduct, was to be kept up in the present utterly chaotic state of opinion on these matters without the use of the Bible. The pagan moralists lack life and color, take the Bible as a whole, make the severest deductions which bare criticism can dictate, and there still remains a vast residuum of moral beauty and grandeur. By the study of what other book could children be so much humanized and made to feel that each figure in that vast historical procession fills, like themselves, but a momentary space in the interval between two eternities and earns the blessing of curse of all time, according to its efforts to do good and evil?
(Thomas Huxley, quoted from D. James Kenedy, Skeptics Answered, 1997 ; p94)

My point is not, “see look at what these people said, you must believe now.” I point out these testimonies to state that I believe the primary cause of one’s loosing or rejecting faith is because of this very reason…what difference has their experience with faith/religion made. What is this person’s experience with their own faith or the life of another person who is of the Christian faith? This is not the argument of pragmatism, “if it works, then its true”, but rather a call to Christians to be who we say we are (not claiming perfection) and to live as one who is being transformed by the truths we seek to defend, and thereby transforming our communities. In my theology, sin is sin, and it is harmful to the person committing it and to his/her community (possibly extending to the global community). It is sin if it is committed by an atheist, a theist, or a Christian. However, Christians have at times hid behind “absolute truth” to either justify or escape their own sin.

Too often appeals to the objective truth of the gospel have served as a means for the church to evade its responsibility to live faithfully before the world. In short, Christians insisted that the gospel was objectively true regardless of how we lived. The paradigm I am advocating frankly admits that all truth claims require for their widespread acceptance the testimony of trusted and thereby authorized witnesses. This is as true for the truth claims of science as it is for those of the church.
-(Philip D. Kenneson,”There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing, Too.” Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World. Edited by Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995; p166)

I don’t think it will do us any good to objectively prove God’s existence (which I am not sure you can do nor can you prove God’s non-existence) or prove the Bible is absolute truth and live no different than those who reject such notions. The good news is that all humanity can admit his/her failings, be forgiven of those, be enabled to reorder life around the revealed character of God through Christ (faith), and seek to love others as they have been loved by God.

Recycled or New Epistemology?

Yesterday, Greg asked the following question in his comment, “Some say Paul experienced a Post-Modern audience…so are there really only two epistomologies repackaged over and over again?”Recycle Earth

I do see strong similarities to the culture Paul faced and our current post-modern culture, and I felt drawn to agree that it seems humanity is only re-packaging the same patterns of thought in different skins, however I think upon closer review I must acknowledge a growth of human thought patterns which reaches to the past, assimilates it through what we have learned and lived and applies it in fresh new ways to a different set of cultural questions, assumptions, and problems. The post-modern epistemology is specifically POST-modern because it is a reaction/response to the modern. And the modern epistemology came about through the Enlightenment and thinkers such as Locke, Descartes, Kant, and others.

But before I continue in recent philosophy and developing theories, let me affirm that truth is something very important in scripture. Take a few passages as examples (emphases mine):

Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (John 1.14)
Jesus prayed for his followers, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” (John 17.17)
Jesus promised the Spirit of God to come, “he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (John 14.16,17)
Jesus claimed, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14.6)
Paul writes that truth can be suppressed by wickedness, “…by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Romans 1.18)
He further indicts humanity for worshiping a lie, “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie…” (Romans 1.25)
Christians are told to test the spirits, “By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4.6)

And we could go on and on. This is nowhere near an exhaustive study on the uses of truth in the Bible. A quick search shows that in the ESV Bible the English word is used 141 times.

Rene Descartes

Image from Wikipedia

However, if we did a full study, we must acknowledge that we read the word “truth” with a perspective that is uniquely different than those before us who said or wrote those statements. Our concept of truth has been dramatically shaped by “Descartes’s theory of mind as mental process and Kant’s notion of philosophy as the tribunal of pure reason [which] helped produce many of the dichotomies that now appear self-evident: object/subject; realism/idealism; knowledge/opinion; fact/value; reason/faith; rational/irrational; public/private.” (Philip D. Kenneson) In a fascinating thesis, Kenneson, continues to evaluate the concept of objective truth which we have come to accept and attempt to defend:

Within such a view of knowledge, truth (or Truth) is not so much a concept as it is an entity “out there” in the world, waiting to be discovered; Truth is merely the word for the way the world really is which we are trying to picture or mirror with our knowledge. When human beings discover this Truth, picture it faithfully in their minds and mirror it accurately in their language, we say that they have genuine knowledge. Moreover, such knowledge is “objectively true” when its status as true does not ultimately depend on the testimony of any person or group of persons. Indeed, the whole point of claiming that something is “objectively true” is to say that any person, unhindered by the clouds of unreason and the prejudices of self-interest, would come to the same conclusion. (Philip D. Kenneson,”There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing, Too.” Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World. Edited by Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis L. Okholm. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995; pp. 157)

So is there another way or is our only option to categorize everyone as either an objectivist or relativist? Has the attempt to defend the faith according objective truth with modern constructs contributed to individuals disconnecting faith and “real life”? I would love to read some of your thoughts/reactions.

Trust me, I am going somewhere with this…and I’ll leave you with the quote below to whet your thoughts (there’s a mixed metaphor) for tomorrow’s conversation continuation:

Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard in a coffee-house, an oil sketch by Christian Olavius, 1843 (Image from Wikipedia)

“There is something missing in my life, and it has to do with my need to understand what I must do, not what I must know – except, of course, that a certain amount of knowledge is presupposed in every action. I need to understand my purpose in life, to see what God wants me to do, and this means that I must find a truth which is true for me, that I must find that Idea for which I can live and die.” (Søren Kierkegaard “An Entry from the Journal of the Young Kierkegaard”, quoted in Truth Decay by Douglas Groothuis, p10-11)

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