It’s a pleasure to be with you, and to be able to participate in this Reformation conference, this year. It’s wonderful to be able to talk about the issues that are at the heart of, not only what happened five hundred years ago, but what we really desperately need again today, and to be with so many concerned brothers and sisters, who feel the same way about that is a great privilege and a joy.
Thanks to Pastor Lambert and the pastors and elders at New Saint Peter for bringing me here and inviting me to be a part of this. Let’s open, shall we, with a word of prayer. Our gracious Heavenly Father we come to you because you are the author of life, and even when we fell in Adam you already had a plan to restore us, and beyond restoring us, actually to bring us into your family, and to take us where humanity had never been before, namely into that great consummated state, where at last we glorify you and enjoy you forever. And Father all of that is secured for us by that new and living way in Jesus Christ our Savior. We pray Father that over this weekend, tonight and tomorrow we would be able to understand and wonder and revel all over again in that wonderful and often familiar Good News that we have received, namely that Jesus Christ is sufficient, not only in the beginning, but throughout the Christian life, for we pray in His name. Amen.
I don’t like this talk very much. This is the bad news! And I would prefer to talk about the good news. So happily I’d get to talk about that all day tomorrow.
Tonight however, I’ve been assigned a topic which was the subject of the first book in a series of three, that I have been writing over the last few years, titled Christless Christianity. That book states the problem. Second book, The Gospel Driven Life, presents the solution, namely the Gospel for all of our faith and practice, not just in the beginning, but throughout the christian life. And then finally, The Gospel Commission, focusing on taking that message out to the rest of the world and what it mean for us; to be recipients of the great commission, as well as agents of the great commission. We’ll be able to focus on those tomorrow. But no good news without the bad news. I’m afraid if you are constitutionally unable to handle bad statistics, this is probably not gonna be a good night for you. But we have to lay out the problem before we can talk about the solution, and so that’s what I’ll focusing on this evening. Let me open first of all with a section from Paul’s letter to the Romans beginning at verse 30 of chapter 9. Paul says:
“What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written,
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Rom 9:30-33)
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 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. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (Rom 10:1-10)
And then he says verse 14. “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (10:14-15).. So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (v. 17)
This will really be our text, holding together the different talks tonight and tomorrow. It’s a wonderful passage where Paul very clearly lays out two ways, two ways of looking at religion and spirituality. One way is very dominant. Not only was it dominant for Paul in relation to his brother according to the flesh, but really it’s our default setting. And there is a theory of religion that says we are sent up to God, either by mystical experiences or by our works or by our speculation or as Paul says in the Gospel, not only did God come down to us two thousand years ago in Christ, because we couldn’t climb one rung up to him, but even now he comes to us as nearly as the word of the Gospel that we hear preach. And so Paul says, you don’t have to go climbing up into heaven to bring him down or into the depths to try to bring him up from the dead. He is there in the common everyday creaturely elements that he has promised to bless. He is there in preaching, he is there in baptism, he is there in the Lord’s Supper, where has promised to meet us in the very common everyday elements that he himself has created.
So it’s all very different, very very different the ascent of the soul, that constitutes so much of the spirituality all around us in our day. Every Christmas and Easter in national periodicals have something on their cover about the search for the secret. You know this sort of general theology of Oprah, if you will. That is now sort of the pervasive theology of our culture, where it’s believing in anything and everything in general, but nothing in particular. And the main purpose is to find the god within; to find our own inner resources; to look within to find the basis for our authority, and also the basis for our self-fulfillment. Peace of mind not peace with God, is the goal of this.
According to the statistics 92% of Americans believe in “God” (in quotes), and 63% believe that the Bible is the word of God. God, apple pie and mom seem to go hand in hand in american culture. But if you just scratch beneath the surface and you ask for a little more specificity, things begin to take a pretty dramatic change, turn and not for the better. Take belief in God for example. According to a pew study, 92% of american adults give a nod to a belief in God. 92%, so we are not struggling in America with a lot of atheism. But only 60% believe in a personal God, and only 79% of those who describe themselves as evangelical christians, 79%, said that they believe in a personal God. 26% of the evangelicals surveyed said they believe in an impersonal force or aren’t quite sure. And despite the public nod to the Bible, most Americans rely on their own inner light to create their own spiritual playlist. According to the pew study, most Americans, including most evangelicals, believe that there are many paths to salvation. And so basically what we are seeing in these studies is that, if anything, professing Christians in America today are further from the Gospel as the Protestant Reformes understood it, than the Roman Catholic church was in the 16th century.
I just saw the latest pew study, maybe you saw it as well, it’s reported in a lot of newspapers and magazines a couple of weeks ago, that when it comes to knowledge of the Bible and christian doctrine, atheist and agnostics came in first. Jewish people and Mormons (Latter days Saints) came in second. And Evangelicals trailed just barely ahead of the category identified as no religious affiliation. But the churches are full. You know, the excitement is there. Something big is always happening. And yet the question really is raised: do people know what they believe and why they believe it?
Increasingly now a lot of people are just staying home. The children of the boomer generation that wanted to have its way — the customer is king — a lot of their children are staying home, they realize you can get this on TV, or you can get this just by hanging out with your friends, you don’t particularly need to get dressed, go to a church and participate in something. That is another version of what you can find anywhere else in the culture. And all of them may have heard the praise music in the background growing up, neither at church nor at home, where steeped in the great truths of the faith. I know there are great exceptions to this. I would assume that many of the great exceptions are in this room tonight, but that’s what the statistics reveal. What we are seeing now is a growing trend within evangelicalism of actually quitting church. As a book titled had it recently, a reporter for the Washington Times wrote a book identifying this trend. It’s a growing trend.
Researcher Ed Stetzer observes, quote: “Southern Baptists, composing the largest Protestant denomination in the United States have apparently peeked in a trending toward decline. The same is true of most evangelical denominations. And he adds: “the bigger concern is that people who identify themselves as christians and even Evangelicals, do not evidence the beliefs historically held by Christians.
You know a lot of folks have grown up in the church, and they will say. Well I grew up in the church but I never learned any of this, and then you ask them, and it’s all that clear that they did in fact grow up in the church. The grew up in nursery school, children’s church, youth ministry and then college ministry. And I meet young people all of the time who have never been a member of a church and have never been baptized. So instead of reaching the lost with all of these missional objectives, are we actually losing the reached. Are we ourselves in need of some missionaries. You talk to some brothers and sisters in Africa, in South Korea and other parts of the world, and they say: “Let us know when you want us to start sending the missionaries.”
In my view there are three basic problems that we see across the landscape that in each and its own way undermines Christ filled christianity in our day.
The first is misunderstanding the Gospel. This is of course a very serious danger because if we misunderstand the Gospel itself, the power of God unto salvation, than we misunderstand the very thing that has any potencial whatsoever for giving us hope and life and faith in this present evil age. There’s nothing else the church does that’s interesting or important if we misunderstand the Gospel. But you hear a lot of people today saying things that you wouldn’t have heard, at least as rarely, 20 or 30 years ago, like “living the Gospel”, “being the Gospel”, instead of preaching the Gospel. You know, basically the idea you hear very often today it’s not, it’s not creeds but deeds. It’s not hearing Christ proclaimed, as Paul said it was, “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. It’s not by hearing Christ proclaimed as much as it’s going up and pulling him down or going into the depths and bringing him up.
Another thing that undermines the Gospel is trivializing it. We can trivialize it by putting it on bumper stickers and t-shirts and not really understanding what’s meant. I not that long ago asked a brother, I saw wearing a t-shirt, that said, “this blood is for your”, with a cartoon picture of Jesus, what he understands by the atonement. And he wasn’t sure what I meant. He was wearing a t-shirt that said, “this blood is for you”.
I’m not saying that we have to be, we have to have all the right words or we don’t really understand the content, but what I’m saying is: we are losing a lot of the vocabulary that gives meaning to what we mean when we say “this blood is for you”. Do we really know beyond superficial slogans what we’re saying to people.
And the third danger is something that I see even in our own circles. And that is assuming the Gospel. The Gospel may be understood, and if you wanna know what it is we’ll tell you. And in fact we’ve got a great confession that’s locked up in a vault somewhere, and we can go find it. I think someone round here knows the combination. And we’ve, it’s great doctrine, great theology. Let me go find that for you. We can do that. But the Gospel is assumed. You know, everybody understands the Gospel, that’s why they’re here, they’re Christians, You’ve been Christian for 30-40 years. You know the Gospel. No, you really don’t. Neither do I. That’s why we have to hear it every week. As Calvin said, “We are all partly unbelievers till we die.”
It’s the Gospel, it doesn’t just give us information, it’s the Gospel that proclaims Christ into our hearts, that put wind in our sails. That gives us the faith that in turn produces the works of righteousness, the fruit of love and service to our neighbors. But we want the fruit without the root. We want the appearance of godliness, as Paul warned Timothy against, without its power, which is the Gospel. Methodist bishop William Willimon puts it this way:
“Lacking confidence in the power of our story to effect that of which it speaks, to evoke a new people out of nothing, our communication loses its nerve. Nothing is said that could not be heard elsewhere. . . . In conservative contexts, gospel speech is traded for dogmatic assertion and moralism, for self-help psychologies and narcotic mantras. In more liberal speech, talk tiptoes around the outrage of Christian discourse and ends up as an innocuous, though urbane, affirmation of the ruling order. Unable to preach Christ and him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.”
We see that across the board, we saw it when some evangelical brothers and sisters went running after the current president as if he were a messianic figure and spoke of it in messianic terms. And now you hear evangelical brothers and sisters on the right talking about Glenn Beck, who is a Mormon, as if he were an evangelical leader. You see it’s the culture wars that define who we are as Christians today. For or against president Obama. Could you imagine the apostle Paul saying — this is where we’re going to put the dividing line. There’s nothing at all, nothing at all in the New Testament at all about how you have to vote. But there’s a lot about the Gospel and what happens on the earth, how everything dries up and withers when that is not being preached. Religion, spirituality and moral earnestness, what Paul calls a form of godliness that denies its power, can continue to thrive in an environment that is superficially friendly to the Bible, it can even flourish in the Bible Belt. But my worry is that whatever something is called the Bible Belt will probably in 10 years from now be a burned over district, filled with so many agnostics and skeptics that it will be very very hard to be missionaries to our neighbors.
We are constantly talking about us. We are so taken with ourselves in the church today. Our discipleship, our happiness, our peace, our meaning. What we can get out of this? And if we are not completely satisfied simply return the annual’s portion for a full refund. We talk about what we are going to do even what we are going to do for Jesus. Without grounding that in the question “What has Jesus done for us?” That’s assuming the Gospel. That’s what happens when we just assume that people signed on a dotted line or raised their hand or went forward, and now they get the Gospel and what they need now is a bunch of instructions; week after week, after week, it’s like coming to homeroom. How to be a better you, how to have a better family, how to have peace of mind. We need to examine the symptoms before we can diagnose the illness.
First of all, there’s a heresy from the 5th century called Pelagianism and you heard about it last year. Pelagianism is named after a monk who came to Italy, came to Rome and he was very concerned that that the influence of this bishop in Northern Africa named Augustin, was having too great of an influence on the people in Rome. Augustin was preaching grace too much. And you know if you preach grace too much what that does. Oh, that just creates all sorts of moral license, and so Pelagius was going to get a handle on it. And so what Pelagius did was deny Original Sin. So that’s part of the problem. We are not born guilty of Adam’s sin and his corruption. We are not totally depraved. Adam was a bad example, and so guess what that makes Jesus? A good example. Adam condemns us only by his example, Jesus saves us only by his. And this was condemned by more church councils than any heresy in history. And yet, it’s very much with us today. Charles Spurgeon, once said that no one ever has to be taught Pelagianism, It’s our native tongue. It’s our default setting. I know it’s my default setting. You know, things aren’t going well in my life, I must, I’ve got find out what I did. Or things are going pretty well, got keep doing that. You know, that’s how we live, that’s what we are wired for, and that’s because we were wired for this in creation. God wired us for law. God wired us to obey. We weren’t created initially fallen and sinful. We were perfectly capable of glorifying God and enjoy him forever, everyday. But after the fall, the worst part of the fall is that we think we still can. And that’s where you get Pelagianism. Wasn’t invented in the 4th century, was invented in the Garden of Eden. But it still clings to us very much. And it has contributed to the perfect storm in our day where many, many sociologists point out that Pelagianism actually is probably more fully pervasively held in American Protestantism today than it ever, than it ever was in 16th century Roman Catholic theology.
One of the bumper stickers in the Middle Ages – ok, wasn’t a bumper sticker, but it would’ve been. It was a slogan that they like to use was “facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam” (God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them.) So what does that sound like that we are more familiar with? God helps those who help themselves. And according to one survey 82% of Americans, and the majority of Evangelical Christians agreed with that. 62% of Evangelical Christians thought that it was quotation from the Bible. And so we really are in a pickle. Newsweek Magazine a little while ago reported (quote) “Churches have developed a pick and choose Christianity in which individuals take what the want, and pass over what doesn’t fit their spiritual goals. See this is like, I have a “My Life Movie”, I think it’s the most important thing, it’s a blockbuster really, and starring Me. And you all – are you ready for this? – You all get to be supporting actors. You’re part of the supporting cast in my life movie! Aren’t you excited? And God too. Ah, there’s a place for God in my life movie! And this I think, this is our setting today, in much of American Christianity. I decide what I’m going to believe, I decide what I’m going to do, based on my own goals, my spiritual workout plan. And God fits into that because, well I need his hep. I need him to be a supporting character in my life movie. When really, that’s just horrible news. This is, my life movie actually is the show about nothing. It’s about the nowhere man, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. He doesn’t have a point of view, he knows not where he’s going to. Isn’t he a bit like you and me? Yes, certainly like me. I’m so glad that that character got killed off in the scene. Not improved with God’s help, but got killed off, got written out of the script, and God wrote me into his script as a supporting character in His Life Movie. See this is the reversal that we need in our churches desperately today. God does not care what you think you need. God created you. God knows what you need. God knows what I need and he loves us too much to let us handle it ourselves.
Those are symptoms, now the diagnose, the illness. As we listen to some of these symptoms, one sociologist, now at Notre Dame, was at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Christian Smith, has gathered together a group of sociologists to collaborate with him in surveying american teens. He did this several years ago in 2005, a whole tea of researchers and the book was published by Oxford, Soul Searching: The Spirituality of America’s Teens. And then he just wrote a follow-up book in 2009 titled Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of America’s Emerging Adults, as he caught up with them, he and the team, caught with them now, so many years later. And from his extensive interviews, Christian Smith came to this conclusion, he says: “If you take it as a whole, I didn’t think I’d hear this unified a message across all the different denominations in [inaudible]. If you could summarize it with one sort of long term what would it be that caracterizes these reports and the religion of America’s teens?” And he came up with the phrase: Moralistic therapeutic deism. Moralistic therapeutic deism. Why moralistic? He says. Well, is it most, most young people say that they believe that good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people. Most of us are good, so we should expect good things to happen to us and we should expect bad things to happen to bad people. But as long as you’re doing your best, you’re trying hard, that will certainly bring you good karma, or God’s favor or whatever you wanna call this amorphous thing that comes to you.
It’s moralistic. Basically good people will go to heaven when they die, and it’s therapeutic. Because basically, he says, according to the surveys, the interviews that we conducted, most of the young people we surveyed said that God there for them when they need it. But they spoke in terms not of the Trinity and sin and redemption and the person and work of Christ in grace. They spoke in terms of peace of mind and their heart being right and having meaning and a sense of purpose in life. In other words, he said it was really category is drawn from a very therapeutic culture. And that fits with what Phil Rieff wrote years ago in his bestselling book, he’s a psychologist, bestselling book, The Triumph of Therapeutic, in which he wrote: “Christian man was born to be saved. Psychological man is born to be pleased.” And so now sin became dysfunction, and salvation became recovery. And that’s where a lot of the message is, I think in America today that across the board it’s really hard to distinguish, something that Oprah might say, from something that you could actually hear in church, in many churches across America today, and Christian Smith says exactly that’s what’s going on. And then it’s deistic. That’s kind of odd, why deistic? He says, “Well, because they don’t really believe in a personal God who intervenes in our lives unless we let him. And so we kind of whistle like Jeeves, you know, for Jeeves the butler, when our bags get too heavy and he comes running and he helps us with our load. But otherwise, he’s out of the way – out of sight out of mind. Smith writes, “mosts teens, including those reared in Evangelical churches and said that their faith is very important and makes a big difference in their lives, are stunningly inarticulate concerning that actual content of faith. Makes a big difference, but they can’t tell you what it is, what it means – this that makes such a big diference. He says interviewing teens one finds little evidence that the agents of religious socialization in this country, parents, pastors and teachers, are being highly effective and successful with the majority of young people in America. And that’s his indictment as a sociologist. So do I want to go any further than that? It’s not my filed, but I just wonder what on earth, what on earth is going on in the churches? Even Lutheran youths, active in the church, couldn’t define Justification, which is the article Lutheran and Reformed Christians believe, by which the Church stands or falls. So is it standing or falling?
Smith writes, “In the working theology of those we study, being religious is about being good. It’s not about forgiveness. It’s unbelievable the proportion of conservative Protestant teens who do not seem to grasp elementary concepts of the Gospel concerning Grace and Justification. It cuts across all traditions.” (end quote). And I asked him when we interviewed him on the White Horse Inn, “Does this really characterize everybody, You are talking about Unitarians, right?” And he says, “No”, he says, “Actually, there’s very little diference between Unitarians and Bible believing Evangelical Protestants when it comes to the statistics, when it comes to interviewing the [inaudible]. It’s pretty much across the board. it’s heart breaking.
And yet, it’s there in our history. It’s not the first time that this kind of Pelagianism has crept up. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Charles G. Finney, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest evangelists that America has ever had. Ah, Led revivals all up and down the Eastern seaboard and on the frontier. And Charles Finney denied Original sin, the substitutionary atonement – you can’t have one person dying for another person’s sin. That would be, that would disincentivize virtue. People have to, have to look at Jesus as their example and try their best to emulate him. For example he says the doctrine of an imputed righteousness or that Christ’s obedience to the Law was accounted as our obedience, is a false and nonsensical assumption. For Christ’s righteousness could do no more than justifies himself. It can never be imputed to us. For whenever a Christian sins he comes under condemnation and must repent and do his first works or be lost. Now we don’t hear that hellfire and brimstone version of Pelagianism anymore, what you hear, very often today is a smiling version. That is have I got a path for you to walk, and if you walk following these spiritual principles, rung by rung up this ladder, you will have a better life. You’ll have health, you’ll have wealth, you’ll have happiness, you’ll have friends, you’ll have whiter teeth. This a happier, more easy – It’s not hell in the balance, it’s happiness in the balance, but it’s still a feverish it’s all up to you religion. Things are not going well, you don’t have enough faith. If you can’t seem to get that quality of life, your business is not quite doing what you hoped it would be doing. Then you are not investing in the spiritual principles that I taught you last week. It’s a different kind of that righteousness which is by Law that the apostle Paul is talking about, climbing into heaven to bring him down, or descending into the depths to bring him up.
One last point here for diagnosing the illness. Marsha Witten published a very fascinating study with Princeton University Press in 1993. All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message of American Protestantism. Just the title alone, All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message of American Protestantism. She starts out by saying she’s not a christian. But it’s interesting to hear someone who says she’s not a Christian as a sociologist, diagnosing what we are talking about here. She did a very interesting study. The texts of 47 sermons on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, delivered from 1986 to 1988, by various pastors and two denominations, the Presbyterian church USA and the Southern Baptist Convention. She starts out the book by saying, “I was”, this will put it all in perspective. For..it put it all in perspective for me personally. She said, [“I was listening to St. Box”, or to, yeah. “to the box St. Matthew’s Passion it was Ester time], and though I’m not a Christian. I grew up as a young girl listening to this and I was drawn to it, and I can’t help, but be in those moments lured by the promise of a crucifixion and a resurrection that provide my salvation. It’s a haunting religion, I don’t accept it but it’s, there’s actually something there. And she says, “just then the Daily Mail arrived and I opened the thickest envelope first, it was a promotional material for a new church launching in my area with the following message: “Hi neighbor! Al last! A new church for those who’ve given up on church services. Let’s face it. Most people aren’t active in church these days. Why? Too often the sermons are boring and don’t really relate to daily living. Many churches seem more interested in your wallet than in you. Members aren’t friendly to visitors. You wonder about the quality of the nursery care for little ones. Do you think attending church should be fun? Well, we got good news for you!” – Not the good news you are thinking of. “Valley Church is a new church designed to meet your needs in the 1990s. At Valley church you meet new friends and get to know your neighbors. Enjoy exciting music with a contemporary flavor. Hear positive, practical messages which will uplift you each week. Like, how to feel good about yourself?” I love William Willimon’s phrases, “When I read the New Testament, it seems to me, I could be wrong, but it seems to me, that Jesus made people more depressed.” How to overcome your depression. How to have a full and successful life. Learning to handle your money without it handling you. The secrets of successful family living. How to overcome stress. Trust your children to the care of dedicated nursery workers. Why not get a lift instead of a let down this Sunday?
Witten also reports University of Virginia sociologist James Davidson Hunter’s documentation of (quote) “The tendency of the popular evangelical literature to stress God’s therapeutic role to downplay notions of sin and to give central prominence to conversion as a relatively easy process of self-transformation through procedures and steps. Taken to the extreme, she says, this talks constitutes do-it-yourself-guide-for-personal satisfaction, with a few mentions of God or faith or prayer tossed into to mark it as religious. As a result, she says, a religion’s teachings, no longer give meaning to their adherence life in the world, their life in the world determines both the meanings and meaningfulness of their creed. It’s not a creed that shapes their living in te world, but their living in the world that shapes whatever they find meaningful or not in the Christian faith. What’s interesting about the sermons, she said, is that for all of their difference, you know, many of the sermons in the mainline Presbyterian samples she took were on the more liberal theological side, whereas many of the Southern Baptists sermons were on the more conservative side, she said they both shared some interesting characteristics. They were both very therapeutic; most of the sermons across the board tended not to talk about sin as a condition. And of course the parable, is all about God the Father seeking and saving the lost in his son. But she said that’s not what came out in these sermons. God comes out as a kind of ideal secretary of homeland security. Homeland being defined by your personal happiness and security. When the pastors sampled in these sermons do talk about sin Witten relates, they depersonalize and generalize it and then deflected to outsiders. They generalize it and depersonalize it and then deflected to outsiders. For example, one Southern Baptist pastor said. “We should go out to the poor, the blacks, the hispanics, the beer drinkers and the divorced, without condoning their sin.” The deflection of sin to outsiders could hardly be more obvious. Ah, since when did being non white constitute a sin, for one thing. But the main Presbyterian strategy, mainline Presbyterian strategy, was to resist offering evaluations – to empathize with both parties. None of the sermons talk about sin in theological terms, Witten writes, exemplified in the omission of the foundation doctrine of original sin. It’s generalized, depersonalized, deflected to outsiders or dismissed. She said in the Southern Baptist sermons the pigpen was the world and the point of the sermon was to gel all the young people in church not to go out to parties, and to stay in the safety of the home. Whereas in the Presbyterian sermons the bad guy wasn’t the kid who left home and lived a riotous life, the bad guy in the parable was the older brother. In both cases it wasn’t I. I can’t find myself as the person who is actually saved in this parable, because I can’t find myself as the one who’s actually a sinner in this parable.
Witten herself says, “This Augustinian vocabulary prevailed in Calvinist speech throughout the early years of American Protestantism, but quickly succumbed to modification that continues to the present day. She said the central message of both, the mainline Presbyterian and the Southern Baptist sermons, the main message was self-transformation – transformation through conversion. And conversion is up to us, but it’s relatively easy to maintain. Although it’s interesting, she says by they time they get through telling you what you have to do for this self-transformation it sounds actually pretty difficult. She also says by the time it’s all over you’re not really sure why you’d need to ask Jesus into your heart, which is by the way an expression not found anywhere in the Bible. Why would you need to ask Jesus into your heart in order to have more personal satisfaction in life? How is that an absolutely necessary thing for that particular outcome. Whereas if you are talking about under the dominion of sin and death, under the condemnation and wrath of a holly God, the cross of Jesus Christ is the only answer to that question. Restoration of the Prodigal to the father, she said, in many of the sermons was basically a human achievement of will and action. In fact by the time they have stated the effective procedures which necessitate human effort on a variety of fronts, she says, conversion finally seems not easy as advertised. Among the typical concluding remarks are the following: Open yourself to the salvation that God wants to work in your life. And Witten realizes it. What’s that mean? What on earth does it mean first of all, and is it even possible?
May conclude, I want, again, I’m [inaudible] tomorrow do not, you know, go home and slit your wrists tonight. There’s good news tomorrow. The good news is coming, but I wanna end with a little bit of good news. Jesus lamented that the religious leaders of his day were like children playing the funeral game and wedding game. “To what can I compare this generation”, he says. Like children playing the wedding game and nobody dances, and the funeral game and nobody mourns. John the Baptist came proclaiming repentance. “The Kingdom of God is at hand and the axe is laid at the root of the trees, and whatever doesn’t bear fruit will be thrown in the fire.” He was kind of a, you know, hellfire and brimstone type of character. He was the funeral guy. He came with the funeral dirt and you guys said, “Boy, he’s a doubter.” You couldn’t mourn. And now when the Son of man comes and eating and drinking and you say, “O, behold, a glutton and a drunkard, friend of tax gatherers and sinners.” I can’t loose, win for loosing with you people. Jesus said, you guys can’t mourn properly as sinners, and you can’t dance properly at a wedding when the Messiah arrives. And that’s, that’s where we have to find ourselves in this story. That we are just like that, all of us. Every week, even though we come to the, sometimes because of what we’ve been taught in church. And far from leading to moral complacency without a serious recognition of original sin, we can easily become passive pawns in the game of dictators, spiritual or political, is the Doctrine of human perfectibility that leaves us open to that sort of deception.
G. K. Chesterton said years ago, the end of the Nineteenth Century, “Christianity’s “outer ring” is despair — but its “inner ring” is “life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only real [faith] frame for pagan freedom.” But in the modern philosophy, he adds, the case is exactly the opposite, it’s the “outer ring” that’s obviously artistic and emancipated, but its despair is deep within it. See his point. You know, Christianity goes through that “outer ring” of despair because inside is forgiveness and Grace, peace with God, joy! Dancing, because the Bridegroom is here, eating and drinking in the presence of God at his feast. Whereas for the world it’s all fun and games and superficial happiness and whatever on the outside, but when the head hits the pillow, deep depression, despair, horrid being alive. In the 1050s Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr gave this pithy and tragically accurate summary of Protestant liberalism. “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgement, through a Christ without a cross.” And sadly from what we are seeing in the statistics, that is the diet now. That is pervasive in many, many churches that left Protestant liberalism over a concern to protect the Gospel. Nome of us is immune to this. Even in good churches we can begin to take the Gospel for granted. To assume it as something that we needed way back then but now — now we are getting alone just fine, now just give me the marching orders. In the 1920s J. Gresham Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism, offered a play that that’s just as relevant today. “I’ve heard your exhortations and they will not help me. But has anything been done to save me? That’s all I ask. If you have any answers there just tel me the facts.” The funeral game is just a warmup for the wedding game. But if we don’t ever have the funeral game we can’t have the wedding game. The bad news is worst than we ever imagined, and the good news is greater than we ever could have conceived. In Jesus Christ we are not improved children of Adam. Our characters aren’t helped along for our Life movie…. we are killed and made alive in Christ in whom there is therefore NOW no condemnation. Amen.