Thursday, May 30, 2013

Does Going to Church Make You a Christian?

There’s a common adage among evangelicals that states, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.” A thoughtful article written by a Lutheran addresses the subtle mistake in this:

It it true that your action of going to church does not turn you into a Christian.  No work of ours gives us our identity as Christians.

But it is precisely in going to church that one is made a Christian.  First at the font.  Then in the assembly.  Later at the table.  God does his work of making and keeping us Christians in his Church.  It is why the phrase “I believe in the Holy Spirit” is followed quickly by talk of the Holy Christian Church in the Creed.  As Luther says, “the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts,sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith.  We are only made Christians by the Gospel and Gifts of God.  And those are given out in the church.  So in this sense, it is precisely by going to church that you are made a Christian and remain one.

As a Baptist who was once a Lutheran and still ministers among Lutherans on a regular basis, I’m going to temper the ecclesiology that Baptists disagree with in my analysis. Namely, Baptists do not believe that Baptism does anything particular for the believer aside from serve as an expression of the faith he or she already possesses. Baptists also do not agree that the presence of Christ is somehow mystically in the elements of the Lord ’s Table.

However, we Baptists do hold to the priesthood of all believers. We do believe that the gospel must be preached and that the normal way for people to come to faith is because Christians as members of all believers reach out to them with gospel ministry in one form or fashion.

There are a few Lutherans who believe that being baptized actually saves someone. However, most Lutheran’s who I have discussed this with acknowledge that just because someone is baptized as an infant doesn’t mean that they are automatically going to heaven. Likewise, partaking of the Eucharist doesn’t save anyone. Someone can grow up in church being baptized and attending every Sunday, being confirmed, etc. and still possess the wrong motives thereby losing all at the final judgement. So I appreciate the opening statements in my quote from the article.

But rarely is anyone saved outside of the actions of the church. There are exceptions we hear of from countries that are closed to the gospel where Christ has appeared to individuals or groups of people and called them to faith in similar manner as he did with Paul on the road to Damascus.

However, people make a good point when they ask about the native in deepest Africa who has never heard the gospel. It’s why we do missions. Our goal is to proclaim the gospel so all people hear it and have the opportunity to respond in faith. It doesn’t happen unless the church goes. Perhaps, therefore, it is better stated that “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, but it sure helps when the Church goes to you.”

Christians, go and proclaim.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What Message Comforts You?

After the big tornado in Oklahoma, John Piper tweeted a scripture passage intended to provide words of comfort for people. It was too long for one tweet so he posted two:

  • @JohnPiper: “Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.” Job 1:19
  •  @JohnPiper: “Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.” Job 1:20

Word came back to John Piper that many people were not comforted by this passage. Many people felt that the passage was insensitive. So he deleted the tweets. Tony Reinke of Desiring God, John Piper’s organization, discussed the decision here.

What I observe from this is that the kinds of statements that comfort people are tied to what they believe.

John Piper finds comfort in the sovereignty of God. So do I. When disaster happens and the effects of a fallen world are brought to bear on our lives, we are tempted to despair. What comforts me is the knowledge that God is still in control and knows what he is doing. We often forget that we deserve far worse and that even the disaster that affects us is gracious compared to what we deserve. So we can give thanks in every occasion and glorify God.

But many are not so comforted by this message. The reason is that they believe that we don’t deserve any disaster that befalls us. As such, they believe that such disasters are not warranted and are inherently evil. Therefore, they conclude that a loving God couldn’t possibly cause such evil things to happen. They feel the need to limit God’s sovereignty to protect God from having cause evil to befall his creation.

The Bible is clear that we deserve death, however. The Bible is also clear that God is absolutely sovereign. My comfort is in the truth of this. Comfort aside from what God has revealed  is false comfort. Nevertheless, when calamity befalls and distorts the ability to understand these things, there may be tension between what is believed to be true and is really false and what is really true for those who believe God could not have caused calamity.

So what message could be given to someone? The truth is too bitter to bear for them and a lie is not acceptable in any case. No written or spoken message is possible. Nothing Job’s friends could have said would suffice. The message that is best is the unspoken message of an empathetic closeness: simply to mourn with those who mourn. If we fail to send this message, we lose the right to speak truth later when a person is in a better state of mind.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Pray For Our Men and Women in the Armed Forces

Today, as we remember the men and women who gave their lives in the service of our country, I want to acknowledge that their sacrifice is a mirror of the One who gave himself to pay the penalty for our sin against God. Just as Jesus reconciled us with God, the hope of the deaths of these men and women has been that of eventual peace.

War will be with us until Jesus returns. Therefore, we can expect the deaths of men and women in the Armed Forces of the United States to continue. Peace might ensue for a time, but another enemy will seek our demise and we must be prepared to defend ourselves.

However, in a post-Christian nation, many of these who will give their lives after the pattern of Christ do not know Christ. Their deaths will not result in their personal peace with God. Pray for these men and women who will yet go to war, make the greatest sacrifice, and be recognized with honor by us to know their eternal Savior and rest peacefully with him forever.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

From Star Trek "Into Darkness" to God's Revelation: Into Light

I’m watching a special on the History Channel that’s investigating physics from observations of the latest Star Trek movie. One statement was made that I think relates to understanding God. One of the contributing physicists made the comment that we don’t know why time dilation exists. This isn’t entirely true. He didn’t qualify this comment, but let me investigate it briefly and then turn to what this means for understanding God.

The speed of light is the speed limit of the universe despite theoretical speculations of warp fields and wormholes. The reason why is related to the production of electromagnetic radiation, aka “light”. Light doesn’t have mass. We can say that light transfers energy. More accurately, it is a pattern of energy manifest in multiple spacetime frames of reference. I’ll keep it as simple as possible:

Energy is transferred from particle of matter to particle of matter when those particles come close enough for their respective systems of forces to influence each other significantly. When a photon of light is produced, the particle that produced it approaches the speed f light and suddenly loses energy. That energy is transferred to the object the photon eventually strikes. As the particle that produced the photon approaches the speed of light in the process, the distance between it and the object that will eventually absorb the photon that is produced is diminished infinitely within the frame of reference of the originating particle. This is called distance contraction and is part and parcel of time dilation. So as far as the source particle is concerned, it hits the receiving particle and thus loses energy.

To the outside observer, no distance ever closed in. What happened is that time dilated for the originating particle and distance contracted. Once the energy transfer happened, the distance snapped back to “normal” and its temporal frame of reference became relatively aligned once again with its surrounding objects. But the distance contraction is represented to the outside observer as a photon and the observation of the originating particle hitting the receiving particle is represented as a difference of time related to the distance. This is the speed of light.

The reason we have time dilation is more easily thought about with a simple thought experiment. If Bonnie and Clyde drive by in their automobile and fire a gun down the road, the velocity of the bullet relative to Bonnie and Clyde is roughly the same as if the vehicle were not in motion. To someone standing by the side of the road, the bullet whizzes by at the velocity of the bullet if the vehicle were not in motion plus the velocity of the vehicle.

But light is different. If it were night time and Bonnie and Clyde had their headlights on, the velocity of the photons being emitted from the front of the vehicle would be precisely the speed of light. To the observer on the side of the road, the velocity of the photons would also be precisely the speed of light. So what happened to the speed of the vehicle? That’s where time dilation comes into play. There is a time differential between the vehicle and the observer on the side of the road that accounts for the difference due to the velocity of the car. That’s time dilation.

Now add to this that a vast spectrum of electromagnetic radiation is passing around us constantly in all directions. We perceive a relatively uniform temporal frame of reference. However, it is anything but uniform. On the subatomic level, time is extremely volatile and changing. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to perceive anything around us. The chemical processes that make our bodies work couldn’t happen. We wouldn’t be able to see the world around us. There would be no life.

Where to go from here? I could talk about creation and how this applies to developing cosmologies. I could talk about how this isn’t often applied very well when people consider the various speculations regarding the beginnings of the universe. But I want to make another observation regarding God’s revelation of himself.

What I’ve written above in very simple and short order is understood by very few people, including some physicists who are interviewed by TV shows. The reason is that most people find it acceptable to relate to and survive in the world with the mere macroscopic perceptions available to us. Most people couldn’t tell you how a simple radio works, but they know how to use one.

God revealed himself to us in a very practical way. In this way, even many intellectually challenged people can grasp the basics about God. However, the depth of information included is enough to make the brightest among us wrestle with some of the issues he revealed to us. Most people are able to function quite well with the information God has provided although some concepts are difficult and present apparently conflicting concepts.

The fact is, God knows the range of intelligence of the creatures that bear his image and planned on giving us all enough to warrant a knowing faith as well as keep us learning about him for a lifetime. The Great Commission is more than simply leading someone into the Kingdom. The Great Commission is more than simply teaching a new believer the basics. We are all to be disciples until we pass from this world.