By Rev. Charles St-Onge
Three Lies Too Many Christians Believe
It’s the Easter season, the fifty days in which Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The Acts of the Apostles, the “history book” of the New Testament, is remarkably consistent when it comes to conveying the core message of Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God promised by the prophets, who was crucified, and who rose again. New life with God is now to be preached in his name to all nations.
But there are a lot of weeks in the church year, which means a lot of sermons to prepare, bible classes to teach, small group topics to cover, and themes to expound on. ”Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again” can’t be all there is to this new life with God, can it? It’s not difficult when walking the way of this new life to miss the narrow path, and to pass by the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13-14). Soon, we’re teaching things and saying things that have gotten pretty far afield.
A few days ago I came across a video called “Three Lies of the Modern Church.” You can watch the video at the bottom of the post. Since the speaker in the video is from the Anabaptist tradition, I passed it on to “Peace Pastor” and suggested we both reflect on it together. Although we come from two different wings of the Reformation, we agree with the speaker that these are three significant “false paths” down which too many Christians are walking. Whether we agree on how to get back on track may be a matter for debate!
Lie #1: The Gospel Goes Forth by Political Power
In other words, as the speaker puts it, too many Christians believe “The Gospel can be brought forth in nations by politics.” Jeffersonians might call this an issue of the separation of church and state. Lutherans call this “confusing the two kingdoms.” It results when Christians confuse the power, authority, and purposes of earthly government with the power, authority and purposes of the Church. God rules through the former in a hidden way, restraining evil and promoting good. God rules openly through Christ in the latter, forgiving sins and proclaiming eternal life. Earthly governments are institutions of law. The Church exists to proclaim the Gospel. As a Lutheran, even a conservative one, I agree that too many Evangelicals spend too much time worrying about the kingdoms of this world.
But as a Lutheran I also carefully distinguish between God’s law, which describes sin, and the Gospel, which proclaims forgiveness. The Sermon on the Mount is mostly law, seen from a human point of view. It is predominantly Jesus’ exposition of the 10 Commandments. Jesus shows us what we would look like if we were holy. It reveals the kind of perfect holiness that God expects from us (Matthew 5:48). But we cannot become these people apart from God in Christ (Matthew 19:26). Our speaker calls this law “the Gospel,” which it really is not.
As someone from within the tradition of the radical reformation, our speaker calls for Christians to withdraw from government since those who participate in it cannot also practice the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount. No soldier would last long if he or she always “turned the other cheek,” for example. The magisterial reformers, especially Lutherans, struggled hard to reconcile Jesus’ radical ethics with his call to “render unto Caesar.” They turned in part to St. Augustine for guidance. It was out of this struggle that the theology of the two kingdoms, which I spoke about above, arose. The Church is called to pray for its persecutors, to love its enemies, to do good to those who hate her. But the State serves a different, temporary purpose. As long as there is sin in the world, God will work through his “ministers of the sword” (Romans 13:3-4).
Lie #2: The Gospel of the Sinner’s Prayer
“If you would accept Jesus Christ into your heart, pray this prayer.” No argument with our speaker here: you will find no such prayer in the New Testament. So how can someone know that they are a Christian? Lutherans point to Acts 2:38-39 as a clear description of what to do when one is “cut to the heart.” ”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. This promise is for you and for your children…” Salvation is a gift that comes to us from outside ourselves. Baptism, a completely external act combining water with God’s promise, emphasizes that point. I confess that I’d never really thought of the “sinner’s prayer” as a replacement for baptism, but I think the speaker has a point. The question is, is there something wrong with clinging to the promises God made to us in our baptisms?
Our speaker would have us turn to our actions as confirmation that we are “saved.” This is not only unbiblical, it is spiritually dangerous. I want to be clear about the Lutheran position on this point: true Christians display the works of Christ in their lives. No one who lives contentedly in a selfish life centered on their own needs and desires should think that they have faith (James 2:17). While a true baptism needs only water and God’s Word, the benefits of baptism are received only by those who believe that it gives what God says (Titus 3:4-7). But salvation, even the faith that trusts in Christ, is a gift from God alone. To look to our own works as the sign that we are right before God is to deny Christ and his work. The solution to the problem of the “sinner’s prayer” is a return to a genuine baptismal theology.
Lie #3: Prosperity and Power Prove the Gospel
Again, no argument from me that this is a significant problem in American Christianity. ”If you believe, you will be healed / your bills will be paid / you will get a better job / you will find a spouse” etc. If anyone believes that Christianity is just a “crutch for the weak,” it’s probably because they’ve heard this kind of “prosperity” message. Anyone who has read through even one of the four gospels knows that Jesus expects his followers to have more trouble in this life than non-Christians, not less. Dumbledore of Harry Potter fame paraphrases Jesus’ ethical point quite well: “The time has come when we must choose between what is right… and what is easy.” Or, in the words of the great British apologist G.K. Chesterton, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It’s been found hard and left untried.”
Luther attacked this problem within the church of his day by expounding what he called a “theology of the cross.” He contrasted this theology with the prevailing “theology of glory,” that proclaimed health and wealth to all true believers. In his disputation at Heidelberg, held shortly after his posting of the 95 Theses, Luther argued:
That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened [Rom. 1:20]. He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
In other words, true Christians understand that God chose to manifest his greatest glory by being crucified. His followers should expect no less.
It’s a good day when an Anabaptist and a Lutheran can agree on three significant errors surfacing in Christianity. We do, however, disagree on why the errors have arisen and how to avoid them. I look forward to engaging with “Peace Pastor” on these issues. Please feel free to post your comments on either of our blogs. We will do our best to respond to them as you engage with us.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia.
Reprinted with permission from Rev. Charles St-Onge, associate pastor of Memorial Lutheran Church