By Mike Ivey
A Crises of Relevance
“Because iniquity shall abound,the love of many shall wax cold.” Matthew 24:12
We live in an age in which for many American Christians, church has become a devalued, marginal institution. Increasingly, church goers have embraced the humanistic social values and philosophies that predominate American culture. Consequently, they find their faith challenged by new attitudes about how, or even if, God and His church are relevant in their lives. This crisis of relevance is the product of a shift away from Christ centered thinking to pragmatic thinking. American Christianity faces the next millennia embroiled in a struggle in which the values of Christo-centric thought are routinely challenged and often displaced by values derived from the humanistic philosophy of pragmatism.
The contention between Christ centered thinking and the philosophies of men is not new. In fact, it is as old as man. The first incident of the conflict occurred in Eden. In the creation God defined evil as man disobeying his will (Genesis 2:16-17) Satan rationalized that it was not evil for man to disobey God because it would have the good outcome of men being as gods. (Genesis 3:4-5) Based on his own self-will, that men be as gods, man agreed with Satan’s rationalized position that disobeying God’s will was acceptable behavior.
The Apostle Paul warned of the dangers of humanistic philosophy in his epistle to the Colossians. “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Colossians 2:8. He similarly cautioned the Ephesians. “This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart: Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.” He then provided instructions as to how to recover from worldly ideologies. “But ye have not so learned Christ; If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus: That ye put off, concerning the former conversation, the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” (Ephesians 4:17-19, 20-24).
The present social values of American culture place a low priority on seeking to know and do God’s will. This is represented by attitudes and behaviors that indicate a diminishing appreciation of Church as Christ’s cherished bride. Even among Christians, respect and reverence for church as God’s spiritual kingdom, and the principle venue through the power of the gospel to comprehend his will, are increasingly replaced by pragmatic attitudes which appreciate church as simply another source of pleasure. As such, Christian behaviors of repentance, self-denial, and obedience are replaced by narcissistic behaviors. (Narcissus is inordinate self-love.)
Pragmatic religion produces believers who eagerly respond to messages from the pulpits designed to bring them immediate gratification. In contrast, when a call to repent is preached the self-centered focus of pragmatism makes it difficult for congregants to accept the necessity of penitence. In part, this is because the logic of pragmatic thought does not require one to conclude that hedonism is sin. (Hedonism is “a theory or doctrine of ethics in which pleasure is regarded as the chief good or proper end of actions.” O E.D.) Therefore, pragmatic thinkers can reject the notion that they need to repent from their love and pursuit of pleasure.
It is difficult, if not altogether impossible, to understand the biblical concept of comfort that is characterized by the values of a selfless, impoverished carpenter who died at Calvary while embracing relativistic values derived by regarding pleasure as the chief good. Sadly, today, about the only way many Americans relate to Christ as comforter is in a context of pleasure seeking orgies of consumerism at Christmastime. They no longer appreciate the great value of a Christ centered life, which seeks to partake of all godly things; and is principally administered through Christ’s church.
Pragmatism: The end justifies the means
Pragmatism is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: The philosophy that the whole meaning of a conception expresses itself in practical consequences. It is a discipline of logic that relies on self-will to rationalize the moral qualities of behaviors based upon their contributions to achieving desired outcomes: If, by whatever influence, self perceives a given outcome to be good, then any means which contribute to producing the outcome are also good, and, any behavior that hinders the outcome is evil. It is the circular logic of an outcome based philosophy in which the end justifies the means.
The philosophy of pragmatics represents a departure from Christian values in a fundamental way. It eliminates the biblical definitions of good and evil as fixed moral qualities that are distinguished by obedience and disobedience to God’s immutable will.
According to pragmatic philosophy the crucifixion of Christ cannot be characterized as an act of wickedness as Peter so indicated (Acts 2:23). This is because the crucifixion resulted in the good outcome of sinners being saved. According to the logic of pragmatic philosophy, the whole meaning of the conceptual expression of the event, meaning everything involved in crucifying Christ, must also be good. This is because all the actions of men that contributed to crucifixion also contributed to the good outcome of sinners being saved. Hence, according to pragmatic reasoning it could not have been by wicked hands that Christ was crucified. Pragmatism defines the activities of the crucifixion not as wickedness; but rather, as relative goodness by a principle of logic which assigns valuestomeans based upon the successful accomplishment of desired outcome: The end justifies the means.
Pragmatism does not allow that God overcame evil with good in the crucifixion. The notion that the whole meaning of a concept is expressed in practical terms means that it cannot assign the quality of evil to behaviors that in any way end with a good outcome. It can only identify relative evil and relative good by assigning moral value to behavior, (the means) based on desired outcome, (the end).
Furthermore, pragmatism’s reliance on man to determine what is a morally good outcome sidesteps God’s moral authority altogether. This is because it is unable to recognize his sovereignty to define moral absolutes in relation to his own unchangeable will, and thereby his singular authority to judge the moral qualities of all things. Accordingly, the logic of pragmatism embraces some degree of rejection of God. At the least, it places man’s preference to define morality for himself on equal footing with God’s authority to do so. As such, it constrains man to presume any of three propositions about God and himself: 1. God did not create what he willed as he so purposed; 2. God is not God; 3. Men are gods.
According to scripture, the moral values of good and evil were conferred by God in relationship to all that he made in creation, including man. (see Gen 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, 1:25, 1:31, 2:9, 2:12, 2:16-17, & 3:22). He assigned a moral quality of goodness to every expression of obedience to his will and a moral quality of evil to any expression of disobedience to his will; thereby. revealing the existence of a fixed relationship between his immutable will, and good and evil.
Initially, all that God made was good because everything he created was a perfect expression of his purpose to create. God perfectly obeyed his own will by perfectly creating what he intended to create. As perfect expression of his will and purpose to create, creation was good. According to the Genesis account God repeatedly stated that what he had created was good. These statements were pronouncements of moral judgments, which indicate that the moral quality of goodness is fixed in unalterable relationship to obeying God’s will.
The immorality of evil was similarly fixed in creation. Man’s knowledge of evil came to him as the result of disobeying God. This fact reveals the definitive relation between disobeying God’s will and the negative moral quality of evil: Disobeying God is evil. “God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” (Genesis 3:3).
By disobeying God, man became something less and other than a perfect expression of God’s will in creating him. He was less than what he was made because perfect obedience was no longer a characteristic of man. He also became other than what God created in that disobedience became a characteristic of man. Not only so, it became a permanent quality because it was impossible for him to un-disobey God. Having made of himself something less and other than what God purposed, man possessed an imperfect moral character that was at odds with God’s will. For God to remain true to his own will to define good and evil in terms of obedience and disobedience man could not be judged good. He was evil. “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.”(Genesis 5:5-6).
In a sense, the discipline of pragmatism is self-perpetuating. As we have noted, it’s preoccupation with fulfilling man’s will obscures understanding of the worth of a simple life of devotion toward God. This weakens faith, which results in one losing the Christian virtue of giving glory to God through obedience. The subsequent blessing derived from glorifying God is also lost; which is the joy of knowing and pursuing one’s true purpose in life. The loss of blessing expresses itself as spiritual emptiness, lost spiritual joy. Because pragmatism is oriented toward self pleasure, self-will is examined to find a solution for the dissatisfaction of emptiness and missing joy. With weakened faith toward God, self-will seeks the entertaining distractions of temporal pleasures.
This does not mean that pragmatism eliminates all thinking about God. To the contrary, pragmatic concepts about God in some ways can please self. Some value God in a pragmatic context of political correctness. His name is invoked so that no one will be offended. Others use him as a pragmatic lucky charm. In their superstitious efforts to cover all possibilities they call on God just in case he is somehow relevant to their particular and immediate need. In either instance God’s status is deviously reduced to mystery agent. He is used in conjunction with other useful tactics in an effort to secure pleasure.
Those who view God in this way are deceived by what may be termed as Satan’s Christ AND strategy, which C. S. Lewis illustrates in his book The Screwtape Letters. In an imagined conversation between a senior devil and a group of junior devils Lewis identifies Satan’s strategy of undermining Christ centered religion with the notion that Christ plus other things are necessary to insure success and security. As such, the religious pragmatist might suggest that one’s true purpose is found in Christ AND wealth, Christ AND social programs, Christ AND a music ministry, or else Christ AND the right preacher, Christ AND the right faction, Christ AND whatever pop culture icon is presently center stage. As with the Greeks on Mars Hill religious pragmatists are too religious. With blind superstition they know God only as an unknown god to be called upon just in case he is somehow relevant.
Still others focus pragmatism more directly at the issue of eliminating all notions of moral absolutes. While not directly eliminating God, they consider Him to be inconsequential. Jean Paul Sartre, the father of existential philosophy, best expressed the agnostic predisposition of the pragmatic logic of existentialism in depicting God’s unceremonious dismissal; “Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing.” With characteristic self-centered arrogance existential pragmatism denies the validity of moral absolutes by denouncing God as irrelevant. What makes this particularly insidious is the ability of pragmatism to denounce God without giving any thought to God.
As the relevance of God goes, so goes the relevance of his church.
Post Christian Neo-paganism
While the many of the symptoms of a devalued and marginal church can be readily recognized, and are examined elsewhere in this essay, the cause is less obvious. This is because the root of the problem is a particularly subtle, convoluted form of idolatry. It is a paganism forged of a perverse mixture of new age philosophy, which in reality is nothing more than a new expression of the age-old sins of narcissism and hedonism, superabundant wealth, which is the distinctive contribution of American society, and a relativistic view of Christianity. It is this unique combination which persuades us to identify this idolatry as neo-pagan. While it is true that the same old carnal lusts are at work, they are camouflaged in the trendiest, most palatable fads of self-indulgence that wealth and religious relativism can serve up.
We are obliged to characterize this age as post-Christian when it is understood that the religious relativism produced by pragmatics has caused many who call themselves Christians to lose their comprehension of true Christianity. Christian values such as chastity, generosity, liberality, humility, and brotherly kindness are trivialized by the relativism of pragmatic philosophy. Taking their place is a transient moral code of situational ethics that ignores the necessity of penitence and forgiveness. Rather, it devises means by which different contingents of American Christianity can excuse, if not altogether justify, virtually any errant behavior. The result is that the influence of a fixed, Christ-centered value system on American society is declining while the relativism of pragmatic thinking gains momentum by producing ever fluctuating situationally defined values.
This pseudo-Christian idolatry is characterized by narcissistic (self-love) cultural attitudes that find expression in the tactics of hedonism (love and pursuit of pleasure). The combination of self-indulgence, superabundant wealth and religious relativism produces a set of sins which may be described as “Hezekiah Syndrome.” Many American Christians have fallen into the same snare of the devil which trapped King Hezekiah of the Old Testament.
The reader may recall that Hezekiah abolished the worship of Baalim and other false gods and reestablished Mosaic Law and worship of Jehovah. God blessed him with great wealth as a result of his obedience. However, the king loved his wealth more than he loved God. This shift in thinking was predicated upon inordinate self-love (narcissism). King Hezekiah loved himself more than he loved God. Thus, he indulged himself with temporal pleasures (hedonism) while giving lip service to obeying God.
This is depicted by an account of Hezekiah displaying the contents of his treasury to visiting Babylonian ambassadors. He did so to gain their admiration and envy. When confronted with his sin Hezekiah shrugged off Isaiah’s prophesy; that, because of his idolatry the children of Israel would become the slaves of the Babylonians. In a purely narcissistic (self-loving) expression of pleasure focused hedonism Hezekiah replied; “Is it not good that peace and truth be in my days?” (II Kings 20:19)
Despite Hezekiah’s idolatry the Lord was merciful to the king and allowed him to live out the remainder of his life in ease. After his death his son Manasseh continued the downward spiral of idolatry. He reinstated the formal worship of Baalim and other false gods. No doubt, Manasseh could see little difference between formal worship of idols carved from wood and stone and his father’s idolatrous worship of wealth and power. The outcome of the materialism driven idolatry of her leadership is that God allowed Israel to be enslaved to Babylon.(II Chron. ch.32 – 33)
Like Hezekiah many American Christians have a relativistic attitude toward worshiping God. They are the wealthiest group ever to be called Christians, yet deny the power behind the blessings and ignore its responsibilities. They forget the warning God issued to his people regarding material blessings.” “But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth……. And it shall be, if thou do at all forget the LORD thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against you this day that ye shall surely perish.” (Deut 8:18-19).
By ignoring the responsibilities of faithful stewardship, God’s material blessings become means to selfishly pursue the idolatry of sensual pleasures. However, the outcome of Hezekiah and Manasseh’s idolatry demonstrates God’s willingness to render judgment. As paganism continues to spread with each successive generation building upon the idolatry of the previous generation, a continuing removal of God’s providential mercies may reasonably be expected, ending with destruction.
This shift from Christ centered religion to narcissistic pleasure driven idolatry is at the heart of the phenomenon of the devalued church. As self-important church goers embrace the hedonist values of American culture by placing a higher premium on material wealth and pleasure than on following Christ the cycle of devaluation and marginalizing of churches continues. Fellowship with Christ is lost; including the fellowship of his suffering and power of his resurrection. Thus, those who continue to attend church see little relationship between Christ’s suffering and victory at Calvary and the day-to-day tribulations of their own lives. No longer understanding that true comforting is produced by the assurance of the hope of eternal life, which is in Christ Jesus, pursuit of pleasure is the pragmatic behavior of choice to attempt to escape the pain of tribulations and afflictions.
New Christianity: A Marriage of Religion and Pragmatics
American religion has responded to the crises of lost relevance in any number of ways, including employing its own pragmatic tactics. In many instances responses to the phenomenon of marginalized church actually contribute to the dilemma in that they often reflect the same cultural values that characterize the problem. Like parents attempting to appease spoiled children by giving them candy, some religious leaders actually indulge their congregations with the very wantonness that is at the heart of this dilemma.
Pragmatism trivializes true religion. It promotes gimmickry and fraud. At almost any time of day one can turn on the radio or TV and hear a pseudo-Christian message expounding the financial benefits of following Jesus. The message infers that pleasure is the purpose of Christianity; and that Christianity is a benefits oriented religion in which pleasure is derived through materialism. Therefore, God wants all his children to be wealthy. With the bombast of medicine show barkers promoters of neo-pagan materialism reduce the Savior to nothing more than daily doses of a new age success potion.
Pragmatic strategies which appeal to human pride and lust are applied as means to produce pleasurable responses in attempts to win approval for God and church in the minds of self-absorbed congregants. To make this point we will examine three strategies used to combat the phenomenon of devalued, marginal church that employ the principles and tactics of pragmatism. They are: social issues driven religion, emotion driven religion, and pride driven comparative religion. We will attempt to demonstrate that each of these actually embrace and promote many of the same cultural values responsible for producing the present difficulty.
When considering each of these strategies the reader is cautioned that examination of the symptoms of this problem is not comprehensive. Also, because pursuit of any one of these schemes constitutes departure from Christ centered discipleship it is reasonable to believe that some combination of all three strategies can exist in a single church.
1. Social issues driven religion: By social issues driven religion we mean that some denominations have responded to the dilemma of a marginalized church by sponsoring any number of programs to address the social interests of their memberships. This is a pragmatic strategy designed to produce a pleasure response that will cause members to value church as a provider of social services. The numerous and varied programs are employed as means of maintaining the interest of existing members and gaining new members.
A typical social issues driven church may seek to comfort members through political activism, or by providing all manner of socially oriented services that are aimed at self-actualization. These may include drama classes, music lessons, health clubs, child care, singles groups, etc.. Members are encouraged to define the relevance of church in secular terms of how well their desires for social interaction are met. Thus, social issues driven religion tends to orient members’ thoughts about church toward self-indulgence. Rather than emphasizing a message of how one may serve Christ acceptably, this strategy focuses attention on what services the church provides to members.
The justification given for the numerous programs is they are providing needed services. Proponents point to Christian principles of charity as their motivation. They note that these programs render service to others and thereby serve God. However, the extensive and often impersonal bureaucracies necessary to maintain these programs tend to overwhelm the simple biblical concept of one-on-one, brother-helping-brother Christo-centric charity. Biblical examples of direct and self-denying charitable acts such as the Samarian binding the wounds and finding shelter for his Jewish brother are a far cry from dance lessons and drama classes.
The flaw in social issues driven religion is that individual Christ centered discipleship is replaced by program driven, self-centered religion. It places more emphasis on giving pleasure to members than on teaching self-denial and servitude as principle components of discipleship. Also, the number and variety of services provided by a social issues driven church can produce a bureaucratic management style for providing service that diminishes the sense of personal sacrifice a Christian has when he denies himself to help another. Both those receiving the service and those who render service can lose sight of the fact that Christ centered discipleship requires personal sacrifice: Christ made a personal sacrifice of himself when he paid the ultimate price of suffering and death to secure eternal salvation for others. Similarly, the Lord expects Christians to make personal sacrifices of themselves to benefit others.
2. Emotion driven religion: Some churches engage in a strategy which focuses on emotional stimulation as a means of developing and maintaining relevance in the lives of members. They employ pragmatic tactics that are designed to play to members sentimentalities in order to produce pleasurable emotional reactions. Such churches may adopt an entertainment orientation toward worship that is well adapted to soliciting impassioned responses. Singing and preaching are delivered with purposeful drama to arouse vigorous enthusiasm. Worship is thus conducted with an animated fervor aimed at producing intense emotional excitement, which is approved as real spiritual experiences.
This is not to say that there is no place for emotion in one’s religious experience. Scripture plainly indicates that faith motivated fervor is consistent with authentic spiritual worship. However, the purpose of true religion is that believers glorify God. Emotional outpouring can be a pleasurable by-product of faithful religion, but it is never its focus.
Furthermore, faith is a requirement of true spiritual experience; but, without good works faith is dead, being alone. (James 2:17) Emotional response alone is not good works. As such, how one feels, when taken alone, is not a proper method for monitoring religious experience. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9
A significant shortcoming of emotion driven religion is that the pursuit of self-gratifying sentimentality replaces scriptural injunction to the loss of genuine spirituality. Bible principles such as godly sorrow, repentance and obedience are replaced by feel-good passionate outbursts which are imagined to be gracious visitations from the Holy Comforter. Rather than correctly identifying God’s presence by their penitence and spiritual conversion to good works while under the sound of the gospel, the performance atmosphere of emotion driven religion encourages congregants to associate Divine visitation to whether or not they received immediate pleasure from the preacher’s sermon: If the sermon made them feel good then the Lord must have been present. If it didn’t then he wasn’t.
The excesses of emotion driven religion can also produce self-justifying antinomian tendencies. Antinomianism is the erroneous belief that because grace superceded Mosaic law service accountability to moral law is nullified. To avoid the lawlessness that antinomian tendencies produce emotion driven religion is sometimes accompanied by legalism.
Legalism is a man centered approach to maintaining obedience among church members. It is a caricature of faithful orderliness. In the case of emotion driven religion, it is a pragmatic tactic to curb the immoderate behaviors cultivated by man centered sentimentality. It does bear some resemblance to faith based order; however, legalism is not faith driven. Relying on intimidation and peer pressure, it is an autocratic regime of policy making that produces ever increasing numbers of rules and regulations in an effort to maintain the status quo.
Lacking godly judgment, mercy, and faith, legalism seeks to control behavior by meticulous enforcement of rules, rather than seeking the whole counsel of God’s will in scripture and by prayerful petition. It sometimes advances the letter of God’s will, but never his Spirit. This was the point Jesus made to the scribes and Pharisees when he declared; “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23)
Legalism tend to employ intimidation tactics and peer pressure as the principle means of controlling behavior. These tactics are effective because conformity, a prevalent feature of legalism, encourages a form of elitism that defines fellowship as common allegiance to church, and church leadership. This eliminates the New Testament model of Christo-centric church fellowship that Paul characterized as “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) As such, loyalties are primarily to church and secondarily to God and his word. Legalists do invoke God’s name as authority for the tactics they use; however, the focus of legalism is not to glorify God through obedience to his will. It is to control behavior among church members.
The conformity principle of legalism relies on generally agreed upon church traditions, whether or not they are grounded in scripture, to define acceptable behavior. Concerns about how things were done in the past, and everyone doing things the same way are the chief means of deciding what is acceptable and what is not. Coincidental compliance to scripture can occur; but when it does it is usually opportunistic, and therefore secondary to a self-serving desire to maintain control by a dogged defense of the status quo. Thus, pragmatic self-interest outweighs faithful obedience.
While a church can be legalist and not be emotion driven the opposite is rarely true. Although this may seem a bit strange it is perfectly sensible to those who depend on their feelings as the principle means to determine spiritual experiences. Sentimentalism and legalism together provide practitioners of emotion driven religion with a false sense of spiritual equilibrium. They represent a pragmatic strategy to control and channel peoples’ passions. They stir different emotions; but have no doubt, they both depend on human emotion for their existence. They are both self-indulging expressions of emotion driven gratification. Together, they compose a nominal counterfeit of faith driven, Christ centered spirituality. Sentimentalism and legalism are opposite sides of the same coin.
Mistaking human emotions for Holy Ghost energized, soul stirring Divine experience the practitioners of religious sentimentalism are misled into believing that human feelings are the principle means of determining obedience to God’s will. The natural outcome of such error is that man’s wicked heart deceives him into thinking that if something feels good it must be morally right. Thus, comprehension of God’s will as the fixed moral standard for acceptable behavior, revealed and defined in his Holy Word and confirmed by the Holy Ghost is at least clouded and sometimes altogether obscured by pragmatic interpretation of one’s feelings.
By relying on feelings to establish and maintain beliefs, rather than Christ and his word as a standard for correct church, emotion driven religion represents a diminished regard for both Christ and His Bride. As with social needs oriented churches, the true value of Christ centered worship is minimized by the pragmatic tactics of worldly self-love.
3. Pride driven comparative Religion: By the term comparative religion we do not refer to the anthropological field of study of world religions known as Comparative Religion. Rather, we use this term to describe a pragmatic strategy of using self-defined righteousness to determine one’s orthodoxy by comparing one’s own beliefs and practices to those of others.
Like emotion driven religion, pride driven comparative religion is inclined toward an autocratic church subculture, only more so. This is because its practice is predicated on legalism. Practitioners of this strategy promote a pragmatic view of righteousness supported by a convoluted legalism in which superior orthodoxy is depicted in situational terms by finding fault with others: The claim of superior orthodoxy is bolstered by a concept of comparative righteousness in which distinctions are made between one’s own beliefs and behaviors and other’s beliefs and behaviors.
This tactic allows comparative religionists to define orthodoxy by almost any standard by employing self-determined concepts of righteousness. We refer to the underlying legalism as convoluted in that the meaning of orthodoxy fluctuates by redefining one’s concept of righteousness as new comparisons are made. As such, orthodoxy becomes both situational and transient.
The Apostle Peter displayed the principles of this situational, transient brand of orthodoxy as precepts of comparative religion when he ignored the direct revelation of Christ and the prophetic revelations of the Old Testament to proclaim that even though others would deny Christ, he would not.: “Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. But after I am risen again, I will go before you into Galilee. Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended.” (Matthew 26:31-33)
Peter’s announcement demonstrates the self-righteous arrogance of comparative religion by his direct contradiction of the Savior’s revelation. He chose to portray righteousness as not denying Christ, rather than believing the Savior’s testimony. He attempted to set himself apart from the other Apostles, as having superior orthodoxy, by noting their fault (though all men shall be offended because of thee) and denying any such fault in himself (I will never be offended). Thus, obeying God by believing and accepting his word was not the principle factor for Peter in determining the orthodoxy of his discipleship. Rather, Peter defined his devotion as Christ’s servant in relativistic terms of how he perceived his beliefs and behavior in comparison to others. Pragmatism allowed Peter to define both righteousness and orthodoxy in relative terms that depended on obeying his own will, rather than as obeying God by believing and accepting the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Peter’s situation depicts the subtle nature of the sin of self-righteous, pragmatic comparative religion. Taken alone, it is a good thing to not deny the Savior. Thus, at first glance, it would appear Peter’s proclamation expressed the righteousness of his claim of orthodox behavior as compared to the unrighteousness of those who would deny Christ. However, this was not really the issue. The real issue was Peter’s refusal to accept Christ’s revelation, which was tantamount to calling God a liar! Peter committed the sin of unbelief. His tactic of setting himself apart from others by claiming that he would not deny Christ did not show him to be more righteous, or a more orthodox follower of Christ. It revealed the unrighteousness of his unbelief.
The fact that Peter denied the Savior displays the utter failure of pragmatic comparative religion. It sets low standards of discipleship, then fails to meet its own meager expectations. While not ignoring God’s word altogether it holds scripture in low esteem. It does so by the selective and often misleading use of scriptures in a given circumstance as a tactic to find fault with others and thereby confirm its proponents preconceived notions of self-righteousness and superior orthodoxy.
The intimidating nature of comparative religion frequently induces others to commit similar sin. Notice, after Peter denied Christ’s word and proclaimed that he was the exception to prophecy and would not deny the Savior, the other Apostles proclaimed they also would not deny Christ. “Peter said unto him, Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee. Likewise also said all the disciples.” (Matthew 26:35) Peter’s arrogant attitude influenced his brethren to make his sin their sin also.
Like Peter, preachers of the gospel are susceptible to prideful attitudes that can initiate the practice of comparative religion. And also like Peter they can tempt others to become participants in their sin. This can occur when a preacher strays from a Christ centered message to pursue self-gratification in his preaching.
When this happens preaching can undergo a gradual change away from a gospel of repentance and faith toward God to a comparative religion message. As the preacher attempts to produce a desired response from his congregation, so that he can feel good about his preaching, the message may change from a gospel that is the power of God to save believers from the consequences of unbelief through repentance and conversions, to one in which members’ are encouraged to define their orthodoxy by finding fault with others.
The new message focuses less on Christ and more on the superiority of the churches’ faith and practice as compared to that of other congregations. It encourages members to become arrogant and self-righteous by defining their worthiness by others’ shortcomings. The pulpit rhetoric of comparative religion may employ the use of critical generalities as a tactic. For instance, revelations about others’ heterodoxy often do not include specific details. Innuendo and insinuation are used to present vague, incomplete critical descriptions of others’ beliefs and practices.
This build-and-destroy-a-straw-man approach to religion cultivates attitudes of pride and arrogance that are foreign to the beliefs and practices of true worship. It promotes a brand of church exclusivity that has nothing to do with Bible prescribed order in which brethren worship to the common purpose of serving God in spirit and truth. Rather, it defines fellowship by the same principle of denigrating elitism employed by the Pharisees in the New Testament who constantly sought to reinforce their self-righteous notions of worthiness by continually finding fault with others.
The result is a self-assurance that has its basis in human pride and arrogance; which do nothing to address the social pressures challenging church member’s faith. As with our other examples, Christ centered religion is abandoned to the pragmatic principle of the end justifying the means. In a search for relevance church is devalued to a means of producing self-righteous, feel good sensations of superiority.
Each of these three examples reflect some degree of departure from biblical concepts of church in favor of the cultural values of present day society. This represents abandonment of the role of church. Church no longer influences cultural shifts in society that reflect God’s values. Rather, American culture is influencing church to reflect societal values. Christ likened his kingdom to a light to the world and a city set upon a hill, which cannot be hidden. However, the practice of pragmatism by Christians makes their witness unbelievable and ineffective. It dims their light to the world. It makes church less a city set upon a hill and more, just another edifice of American society, another cultural icon. In this circumstance it appears for now, that the gates of hell are prevailing. Rather than Christianity increasingly influencing people away from the snare of the devil, the devil is presently having success at ensnaring many who claim to follow Jesus.
“ ….put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; ….put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” Ephesians 4:22-24
Christ Centered Thinking
The return to relevance of church will only occur when Christians return to Christ in godly sorrow and with repentance. In order for this to happen the present humanist philosophy of pragmatism must be abandoned and replaced by faith driven Christo-centric philosophy. Believers must turn from the corrupt thinking of moral relativism and be converted once again to the simplicity of obeying God’s will.”This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind.” (Ephesians 4:17)
The ethics of loving God by following Christ’s example must be restored, so that like the poet we may proclaim; “Do not I love thee oh my Lord? Behold my heart and see? And turn each cursed idol out that dares to rival thee. Do not I love thee oh my Lord? Then let me nothing love. Dead be my heart to every joy which thou dost not approve” Through faith and by the power of God believers must be renewed in their minds and learn again to think like Christ Jesus.
Christ centered thinking, Christo-centrics, is the philosophy of Christian discipleship. It rejects the philosophies of men in favor of faithful thinking: “be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” (Romans 12:2-3) It is a logic that seeks to completely integrate God’s values into one’s thoughts. In this way, it is thinking like Christ.
A working definition of Christo-centrics is: The Christian philosophy that every conception possesses a moral quality in relation to the person and work of Christ as the supreme example of love through compliance with God’s will. It is the philosophy of faithfully seeking to know and do God’s will in every thought, word and deed. The pattern of behavior of Christo-centricity is self-denial and obedience to God’s will. Its motivation is love of God (John 14:15). Its instruction is God’s written word. Its example is Jesus Christ.
His life and death are the foremost expressions of this philosophy. Together, they represent the ultimate functionality of Christo-centrics. Paul noted the Savior’s whole demeanor was obedience to God through self-denial, servitude and sacrifice when he exhorted the Philippians to think like Christ. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8) The Savior’s suffering and death perfectly depict the ethical pattern and spiritual quality of Christo-centrics. His comportment at Calvary was resolute submission to God’s will through self-denial and sacrifice. (Matthew 26:42). His motivation was love (John 14:31, 15:13).
The Savior prescribed the virtues he demonstrated at Calvary as requirements of discipleship by instructing his followers to engage in similar behaviors in their efforts to do God’s will. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). This statement denotes emptying of self-worth (deny himself), sacrifice (take up his cross), and obedience (follow me), as principles that true believers must embrace to be Christ’s disciples.
1. Deny himself The emptying of the Savior, his self-denying condescension, is described in Philippians 2:7-8 where Paul wrote that Christ “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” And also, ” For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (II Corinthians 5:21) In compliance with God’s will, and motivated by love for God and his children Christ condescended from glory to ignominious death. In so doing, he emptied himself of the glory of Divine prerogative.
Likewise, Christo-centric thinkers seek to empty themselves of all sense of self-worth and the desire for self-glory. The Apostle Paul illustrated the working of this principle in his own experience when he wrote; “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord…..” (Philippians 3:7-8); and again, “But he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” (II Corinthians 10:17).
2. Take up his cross The stigma of Christ was rejection: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3). The stigma of rejection was characterized by his sacrificial death upon a cross, which was a form of capital punishment the Romans reserved for the most contemptible malefactors. On the day he was crucified he was humiliated and rejected with the words, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him. ……. We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)
Those who think like Christ also take up their cross; which is the stigma of social rejection for Christ’s sake. They understand the values of Christlike thinking are mostly inconsistent with normal societal values; yet, they are willing to make sacrifices in order to obey God’s will. They willingly suffer disapproval, rejection, persecution and even death for Christ’s sake. “Wherefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us go forth therefore unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach.” (Hebrews 13:12-13).
3. Follow me The person and work of Jesus defines Christo-centrics in terms of seeking to understand and do the will of God. The Savior identified this principle of subordination of self-will to God’s will when he declared, “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.” (John 6:38). He further indicated the extent and spirit of this principle is integration: It seeks a level of obedience in which the will of self cannot be distinguished apart from God’s will. “I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.” (John 5:20)
Similarly, the Apostle Paul’s reaction to the appearance of Jesus as he traveled to Damascus characterizes the practice of subordinating self-will through integration by seeking to know and do God’s will. He asked: “Who art thou, Lord?” and; “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:5-6) Paul sought knowledge of Christ and through Christ knowledge of God. He wanted to better understand the moral character of a just, yet merciful God. He also wanted to understand the ethics of discipleship. He realized that along with the great blessing of knowing Christ came a moral obligation to follow his example by seeking to understand and do God’s will.
It is the same for all who come to know Christ. Wonderment accompanies the realization that Jesus is Christ. It compels those so enlightened to explore the moral identity of a justifying Savior who died for sinners, and a merciful God who willed that he do so. At the same time, the sense of having been freely given eternal life evokes expressions of love and joyful gratitude that oblige believers to become God’s servants.
Disciples of Christ are not left to know God’s will by pragmatic self-analysis. Neither must they rely on mystical impressions or emotion driven feelings. For Christ centered thinkers the principle source of knowledge of God’s will is the Bible, his divinely inspired. Through exposure to God’s word in the gospel, and with regular study, continual prayer and frequent meditation believers can receive understanding of the quality of God’s moral character and his ethical deportment with regards to every conceivable circumstance of human existence. God’s will for every concern of life is discoverable through the power of the gospel, study of the word, and a dedicated prayer life.
The Apostle Paul declared the suitability of scripture as an instrument for faithfully comprehending God’s will when he wrote, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” (II Timothy 3:16-17) Likewise he declared the gospel to be the power of God to deliver believers. (Romans 1:16) “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth…”
With the inspired word as a creed and love of God as the only motive Christlike thinkers seek to know and do the Father’s will in every element of their lives. They deny themselves and take up their crosses. Placing Christ above all else (Matthew 10:37) they suffer scorn and rejection. Embracing the promises of God through faith they confess that they are “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”
In one sense, Christo-centric thinking is its own reward. It does not leave one empty and rejected; for it is a venue for fellowship with God: “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11)
For those who think like Christ fellowship with God is life. (Philippians 1:21) Dr. John MacKay, a former president of Princeton University, in writing of the influence Paul’s letter to the Ephesians had on his life expressed the complete reorientation and overwhelming impact of Christ centered thinking. “The Christ who was, and is, became the passion of my life. I have to admit without shame or reserve that as a result of that encounter I have been unable to think of my own life or the life of mankind or the life of the cosmos apart from Jesus Christ.”
Like Dr. MacKay, Christo-centric thinkers cannot imagine life apart from Christ. Every encounter, each situation, whether in blessing or tribulation is seen as an occasion to rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:1-3). With the Apostle Paul they proclaim: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
Christlike thinking is the logic of victory in Jesus: Every trial and affliction affirms that nothing can separate God from his children. It is an avenue of faith through which the comforts of grace are delivered to sin weary pilgrims. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
The Bride of Christ: A pearl of great price
In numerous parables the Savior likened his Kingdom to a treasure hid in a field, a pearl of great price, lost sheep, lost piece of money, pounds, a vineyard and talents. Each parable, while dealing with some specific issue of discipleship carries an underlying message as to the worth of the kingdom. In the case of the hidden treasure and pearl of great price, the central theme of these parables is the preciousness of the kingdom.
The most complimentary expression of God’s regard for his church is that he espoused her to his Son. She is the Bride of Christ with all the accompanying intimacy and authority. As such, the pattern and structure of the New Testament church is Christo-centric.
Along with making a practical point of husbands loving their wives the Apostle Paul, in the Ephesians letter, described the Christo-centric relationship of the church to the Savior. The text indicates that Christ’s purpose in giving himself for his church was to present her back to himself in a glorious condition when he comes again “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.” (Ephesians 5:25-27) The existence and circumstance of church is wholly Christ centered. He is the head of the church and her Savior. (Ephesians 5:23) Her sanctification is by his righteousness, her cleansing by his blood. Her glory is a reflection of his glory. In the resurrection, when she is presented to her beloved Savior and husband as a glorious bride, all her praise honor and glory will be directed to Christ. He is the center of her universe; for she does not and cannot exist independent of her beloved husband. He is her Creator, Savior and Advocate. Therefore, all her efforts of honor and praise are to be to him, of him and in him. The New Testament Church is Christ centered.
The whole worth of church is conferred by God through Christ. We know from scripture that without Christ, the organic, or physical church has no intrinsic value. It is not only worthless, but an object of God’s disdain. It is a thing so distasteful to the Savior that he promises to spue it from his mouth. In Revelation he speaks quite clearly to the fact that he is willing at any time to cast away rebellious churches if they do not repent.
The value of Christ’s triumphant universal church of all who are saved in the resurrection is also conferred. It is wholly specified by the love of God for her. We know this is so because she is composed of otherwise dead, alienated sinners for whom Christ paid the ultimate price of his life. Without this greater love there would be no atonement and no resurrection. Without God’s preferential love no one would be saved. There is no motivation for God to save sinners other than grace. Thus, there is no worth to the triumphant Church other than by the love of God, depicted by the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
If, as we have argued, the whole worth of church resides in the will and purpose of God to love and save sinners it must follow that the merit of church is not relative. Her worth does not flow and ebb based upon cultural values. This means that when our perceptions of the value of church change we are not thinking like Christ. Therefore, the phenomenon of devalued, marginal church is wholly a problem of pragmatism derived values that are contrary to Christ centered values. When considering the responsibilities and blessings of church membership self-serving pragmatic thinking must be avoided. Serving God for self-benefit greatly diminishes his blessings. God is rightfully served because he is Creator God. If no other truth existed, if no work on Calvary had ever been done, all humanity would remain commanded by their Creator, and thereby morally obligated, to obey God’s will. This principle is expanded for believers to include a principle of obeying God as an expression of love. Believers possess an even greater moral responsibility to serve God regardless of any benefits derived from service.
Focusing on benefits received from service rather than love toward God and the profound moral obligation to obey His commandments, make it impossible to truly serve God. This is because discipleship is not a pragmatic quid pro quo exchange of service for benefits. It requires self-denial, sacrifice and obedience regardless of outcome. God’s omniscience allows him to search motives. It is therefore, unrealistic to expect that he will extend blessings, when he knows the motivation for serving is idolatrous self-gratification. The love motive of true discipleship is a barrier to blessings for those who serve simply to receive benefits. The pragmatic ethics of serving in order to receive benefits is tactical hedonism. It is pleasure, not love motivated.
Human experience: Tragedy, Victory
Tragedy is the common thread of humankind. When viewed strictly from the rationale of depraved man, the shared experience of all men is short life, filled with pain, followed by death. Job’s succinct expression, “Man that is born of a woman is of a few days and full of trouble” (Job 14:1), captures the utter futility of life absent the providential mercies of God. It is nothing more than a short, meaningless sojourn annotated only by birth, suffering and death. Thus, the essence of a purely corporeal existence is tragedy.
Jesus presented a view of life to His disciples that incorporates Job’s expression of the unhappy circumstance of all humanity but also includes a dimension of hope for those who follow Him. “In the world ye shall have tribulations: but be of good cheer; for I have overcome the world. (John 16:33) The Savior stated his purpose for making this statement. “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace.” The lives of those who follow Christ are characterized by Christ. They are defined by his victory over death, which conveys comforting peace that can soothe and even eliminate the pain of suffering that is the profound experience of all humanity.
In the Book of Ecclesiastes Solomon gave a summary of his life experience which provides a more elaborate illustration of the simple truths that Job and the Savior stated. After having sampled all the pleasures wealth and power could provide Solomon concluded that the whole of his experience was altogether empty. Beginning with his opening statement, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” Solomon characterized the human experience to be empty and meaningless when judged on its own merits.
However, in the last half of Ecclesiastes he revealed an elemental truth: The relevance of a man’s life is conferred by God. Thus, he concludes that all the worth of a man resides in the will of God: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Eccl. 12:13) By his own experience Solomon determined that without God man is empty and worthless; but with God man has meaning and purpose. In this, he discovered the value of a Christ centered life.
Christians are not exempt from the tragedy of human experience. They get the same deadly diseases, have similar painful relationships and suffer loss like everyone. In addition to these normal tribulations and afflictions, they are also partakers of Christ’s suffering. They bear his reproach. For Christian’s, this too is normal. The Apostle Peter wrote: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you” (I Peter 4:12) He continued his exhortation to reveal the Christo-centric reaction to suffering: “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.” (I Peter 4:13-14)
Followers of Christ can reasonably expect more trials and tribulations than the wicked. Furthermore, as with unbelievers, pursuit of pleasure does nothing to change the reality of human tragedy for Christians. It does not eliminate pain or suffering. Use of this pragmatic tactic actually increases the suffering and sorrow of Christians. They may expect to suffer at least a normal measure of misery of the human condition when practicing the failed philosophies of men. In addition, they can expect to suffer the chastening of God’s judgment for doing evil.
However, suffering trials, afflictions and even persecutions as a Christian can turn pain to joy and sorrow to rejoicing in the assurance of the hope of eternal life: “if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf. For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? Wherefore let them that suffer according to the will of God commit the keeping of their souls to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.” (I Peter 4:16-19)
Christ’s church is the single institution the Lord provided whereby the best opportunity exists to turn pain to joy and sorrow to rejoicing. With the gospel as her creed church is best situated to help people learn to successfully deal with every circumstance of sin, including the reality of human suffering, from a Christlike perspective. With Christ as her head the importance of church is magnified in her members,. “…. grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” (Ephesians 4:15-16) Through faith and by the power of the Holy Ghost they render mutual comforting. “Therefore we were comforted in your comfort: yea, and exceedingly the more joyed we for the joy of Titus, because his spirit was refreshed by you all.” (II Corinthians 7:13)
As the principle venue of godly instruction and nurturing, church is the place where comfort and joy may consistently be found. Nothing else, including all temporal pleasure, can do anything more than momentarily allow man to attain the slightest threshold of tolerance for the pain that is the normal condition of vain existence. All human devices, including the philosophies of men, at best only help us to painfully endure the tragedy of human experience. In contrast, Christ’s church is a place where those who are in Christ and keep his commandments can rise above the painful emptiness of pragmatic, man-centered existence to experience the joy of life.
Purpose of Man: To glorify God
In Isaiah 43 the Lord promised to deliver Israel from Babylonian captivity. Included in the promise is God’s purpose in creating “…. Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him. (Isaiah 43:7) The purpose of the righteous, those called by his name, is to give glory to God.
Not only so, the whole purpose of all humanity, is conferred by God in his judgments of mercy and condemnation; in mercy for those who are saved and condemnation for the wicked. This must be so because God is self-existent Creator. There is none else like God and He was made by no one. He has ever been the I AM God who made man for His own glory. This fact defines the whole existence of man as God centered. Thus, to find purpose in life one must be known of God and know God. For the Godly, this designates the function of existence as glorifying God. The righteous are expressions of God’s glory of victory or evil. God will receive glory from all his children in their resurrection in the image of Christ. However, until the resurrection believers can find true purpose, and thereby joy in their lives by the grace of hope of the glory of God. But in order to lay hold on this grace one’s thinking must be Christ centered rather than self-centered. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-2)
As we have previously indicated, such thinking is in direct conflict with the philosophy of pragmatism. Paul knew this when in the Roman letter he wrote: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” (Romans 12:1-3)
Paul knew that a Christ centered life requires Christ centered thinking. He knew that the purpose of life for God’s children is to obey his will. He understood that Christ-centered thinking through faith is the tangible means to overcome inordinate self-love and its resulting hedonistic behaviors: Not only does it have the functional effect of focusing attention more on God and less on self, the discipline of thinking like Christ requires that every issue of life be considered from the perspective of what is the good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God. It eliminates pragmatic decision making.
Through faith, Christo-centric thinkers understand that life without Christ is empty and impotent. They also know that life with Christ is purposeful and powerful. They discover that God defines their existence in larger terms than themselves, in terms of Christ who strengthens. Having their faith fortified they magnify God in their lives to the full assurance and strong consolation of the hope of eternal life. They experience the glory of Divine reality, in which all things are possible to those who believe. (Mark 29:23)
Fellowship with Christ allows believers to transcend the morass of the human condition with all its afflictions, distresses and sorrows, which constantly pull them toward unbelief and despair. All things in their lives are redefined and given real purpose in the context of God’s preserving love. The joy that his affectionate fellowship produces in believers so supercedes the despair of normal human misery that Paul was compelled to declare that the sufferings of these present lives cannot be properly compared to the glory yet to be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18)
Disciples of Christ are energized by God’s love. They are invigorated with a holy breath that makes it possible to do all things God would have them do through Christ who strengthens. Given purposeful and empowered lives, followers of Christ logically are optimists in an otherwise pessimistic world. This is because along with the power and purpose of God’s will for their lives they gain access to Christ’s victory at Calvary with all its immediate blessings. ” Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: For so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (II Pet 1:11-12)
Thus, the true relevance of church resides in the love of God as expressed in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The impact of this Divine reality is a profound moral obligation to act worthily. The responsibility of church is to glorify God as his instrument for saving believers through the power of the gospel from painful, meaningless lives.
All the pain and the suffering of God’s children are properly focused in the context of Christ’s passion on Calvary and his ultimate victory over sin and death. For the Christo-centric believer, while the reality of sin as pain and suffering cannot be avoided, Christ’s victory is a more significant reality. Through faith, the power of Christ strengthens Christo-centric followers, thereby greatly diminishing the influence of tribulations.
By their participation in a Christ centered local church, believers can experience the significance of Paul’s pronouncement; “To live is Christ but to die is gain.”(Phil 1:21) For the disciple of Christ church is this world’s comfort zone. Its high value is characterized by a Christian experience of joy rather than despair, contentment rather than doubt and love toward God and his creation rather than emptiness. This, despite the fact that Christians are likewise exposed to all the tragic and lethal potential experienced by mankind.
The choice: Wretchedness or thankfulness
Despite his faith in God, Paul freely admitted his own experience of wretchedness of human experience: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Yet by faith he moved beyond inclinations of despair to reveal his greater, Christ centered, self: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”(Romans 7:24-25) Paul found tangible purpose and peace for his life in the blessing of thanksgiving for knowing that God loved and included him in the victory of Christ. Through faith he focused God’s love, represented by Christ’s victory at Calvary, on every circumstance of his life in a way that defined all that Paul was in the context of the Divine reality of glory.
The impact was dramatic, producing contentment in the midst of tribulation. Although afflicted, at the center of controversy, with God’s enemies closing ranks against him and death at hand, with thankful heart Paul was empowered to proclaim “… I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Phil 4:11-13). To the pragmatist it would seem that all was lost for Paul and only the utter defeat of death remained. Yet to one who saw more reality in the Divine glory of heaven than he did on earth total victory was in view!
Likewise, through a faithful life of thankful fellowship with God every disciple of Christ Jesus may avoid a lifelong experience of profound wretchedness. He may find purpose, peace, and victory in his own life. Such empowerment is not to be found in the futility of worldly values in which the tragedy of human existence is addressed using pragmatic outcome based thinking. Rather, it is attained through fellowship with the sufferings of Christ and the power of his resurrection.
Believers find true meaning and purpose when they suffer as Christians. They are allowed to glory in the midst of adversity by discovering that tribulations are opportunities to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ.(Romans 5:1) For it is in the afflictions and tribulations of normal human experience that the suffering faithful receive Christ’s Calvary victory over sin and death as gracious blessings of daily deliverances of glory in their lives; which God sends from the infinite, Divine reality of heaven. Significant among these blessings is the glorious ministering they receive through the power of the gospel to save believers, and the nurturing fellowship found in the local assembly of Christ’s church.
The local church is ordained of God to be a Christ centered academy of faith. It is God’s spiritual framework for believers to grow in grace and knowledge of Christ Jesus. Through faith in Christ, ministered by the preaching of the gospel and the nurturing fellowship of like minded believers in the unity of the Spirit, followers of Christ are permitted to gain access to the grace wherein they stand. As beneficiaries of God’s grace they are more than battered sinners trapped in empty, meaningless lives. For along with the comforting assurance of the hope of eternal life they are blest to receive peace and joy, which Jesus promised to those who seek first the kingdom of God. When they are poor in spirit theirs is the kingdom of heaven. When they mourn they are comforted. When they are meek they inherit the earth. When they hunger and thirst after righteousness they are filled. When they are merciful they obtain mercy. When they are pure in heart they see God. When they are peacemakers they are known as the children of God. When they are persecuted for righteousness” sake they possess God’s kingdom of heaven.