Monday, July 7, 2008

Christianity does not work

We live in a pragmatic culture. A thing's value is determined almost exclusively on the basis of whether or not it does what I want it to do. Will it increase my sense of well-being and pleasure? Will it advance my carreer? Will it make my kids obedient and happy? Will it make my spouse more responsive to my needs? These are the criteria by which modern consumers judge everything from restaurants, health clubs, neighborhoods, and religion. Knowing this reality, many within the church growth movement seek to appeal to today's consumers by promising a Jesus and a Christianity that will do all these things and more. "Does it work?" has replaced "Is it true?" as the key question.

As a result it has become all the more necessary to warn those who would come to Christ that they must come to Him as Savior and Lord not life coach, therapist, or guarantor of success. We must warn those who come to Christ for any other reason than forgiveness of sins and justification before God that Christianity does not work. Become a Christian and you may not be healed. Your marriage may not get fixed. Your children may not become well adjusted. You may still lose your job. Of course this will only matter to those who believe that loss of one's carreer is worse than loss of one's soul.

In his book Made In America Michael Horton writes:
"In The Magician's Nephew, C.S. Lewis writes, 'Now that she was left alone with the children, she took no notice of either of them. And that was like her too. In Charn she had taken no notice of Polly (till the very end) because Digory was the one she wanted to make use of. Now that she had Uncle Andrew, she took no notice of Digory. I expect most witches are like that. They are not interested in things or people unless they can use them; they are terribly practical.' This sounds all too familiar when we think of how we view our relationship with God and others. We are all incredibly utilitarian...Like a new bug spray, God has to pass the test of utility for admission into the marketplace. How does God help me get what I want quickly, efficiently, easily, and with minimal cost?...

"In many ways, Christianity doesn't work. It has ruined some crafty businessmen like Zacchaeus, who, by becoming a Christian, ended up giving half of his estate to the poor and paying back those he had cheated four times the amount he had stolen.

"It is this God in whom a woman, Joni Eareckson Tada, placed her trust even though he had included in his mysterious plan a swimming accident that would leave her paralyzed. Without that tragedy, the contemporary Christian witness would be poorer. Not only did God not cancel the accident; he did not heal her, even after she sought healing earnestly."

It is true that Jesus sets us free indeed. It is true that Jesus gives us more than salvation at the end of time. Jesus gives life abundant while we are still south of heaven. But in the ears of the unconverted and, unfortunately, many of the converted this means health, wealth, and pleasant circumstances now. But Scripture and two thousand years worth of faithful Christian witness clearly contradict this. Jesus is not my vending machine nor is He God's customer service representative. He is my Savior. By His own perfect obedience, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection He has justified me before a holy God. Even now he prepares a place for me where I will dwell with him and the whole host of God's people in unspeakable joy. Whatever other blessings He grants me in this brief life, while certainly welcome, cannot compare to the glory to be revealed in the last day.

Take and Read:
When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada
Too Good to be True by Michael Horton
Deserted by God? by Sinclair Ferguson
Shattered Dreams by Larry Crabb


Pete Morris said...

This "selfishly using people" insidiously subverts all our relationships - each other and God. It parades without fear of discovery or disclosure or confession in the church as well as openly in the world. Were it not for such indestructible and infallible salvation we have no hope. Praise God whose Lamb was enough to save even me.

Brandon said...

You pointed out that we live in a pragmatic culture, that the test of worth and value is whether or not it brings worth or value. You claim that the replacement of 'does it work?' with 'is it true?' is a bad thing. (correct me if I'm wrong) The way that I interpret what you describe as "does it work?" is coming to christ with an agenda.

I have two objections to that claim. First, as a student of religion and religious history, the judeo-christian concept of God morphed slowly over time to acommadate the needs of the believers. Originally, Yaweh was a tribal deity, a war god for the early israelites (cite Karen Armstrong, "A history of God"). As time progressed, and judaism met the philosophers of greece, Yaweh became much less directly involved in Israel's political life as that was an untenable consequence philosophically. What about the reformation led by martin Luther king, Catholic theology no longer 'worked' for him. Look more recently at the forms of christianity practiced by african american slaves in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and the liberation theology that has emerged in many oppressed latin american countries. THe point I am making is that religion always checks the pulse of its believers, it is in many cases a response to the life they live. For a religion to survive, it must in some sense 'work' otherwise no one would believe it anymore.

Secondly, it seems to me that coming to Christ as "lord and savior" is equally part of an agenda as coming to him as a life coach. The only difference is that what 'works' in the life coach model is how it affects your life pre-death and what 'works' in the savior and lord model is success after you die.

Todd Pruitt said...


There is so much wrong in your post it is impossible for me to deal with it adequately in this format.

I did not define pragmatism as "the test of worth and value is whether or not it brings worth or value." The point I am making in the post is that many contemporary Christians value God for the same reasons they value a particular restaurant or health club - "Will it give me what I want?"

When we come to Christ as Lord and Savior it is precisely because we have given up on our own agenda. We turn to Christ as Lord and Savior only when we realize that we are sinners in need of a Savior. This is not pragmatism. This is obedient faith.

Biblical faith is not about demanding that God meet our undisciplined felt needs. Unregenerate man does not want what God wants. He does not see himself as a sinner in need of a Savior. Therefore what he wants from religion is an over all sense of well being. It is only through the ministry of the Holy Spirit that an unregenerate person will come to see himself as a sinner.

Also, of course God "morphs" in people's minds. Man is always trying to get God to fit his preferences or current circumstances. This is why the church of Rome became so corrupt and needed reformation. God hasn't changed. His Word has not changed.

If your study of religion is fed by Karen Armstrong I am not surprised by your confusion. I read "A History of God" when it was first published. The former nun believes that man created God. She believes God to be a social construct. Clearly, we don't agree.

Armstrong is known for her condemnation of Christianity because it belittles women and her defense of Islam because it empowers women. Interesting...

I am heartened by the fact that first century Jewish converts to Christ, 17th century Europeans, African slaves, and contemporary Chinese Christians all worship the same Lord. There are different expressions in some cases but a unity of doctrine that testifies to God's good providence.

By the way, it was Martin Luther that led the Protestant Reformation, not Martin Luther King.

Brandon, our only hope in this life and the next is Jesus Christ. He forgives and saves all who humbly acknowlege their sin and look to Him in faith as their only hope for salvation. His death on the cross in the place of sinners has purchased for us freedom from the penalty of our sin and eternal life in his glorious presence. I would love to see you there.

Brandon said...

First of all, thank you for the invitation. Very few people who when are confronted with their beliefs are able to say and mean things like that.

Secondly, I fear I might have done a very poor job explaining myself previously. You and I definitely have some fundamental differences, which is good and what makes this dialogue so great (I think). That being said, I don't know how much good trying to rehash what I just said will do but here's a shot:

Isn't "eternal life in his presence" something that you want? Thus, are you not coming to Christ with a sense of "will this give me what I want? which in this case is eternal life in his presence?

Secondly, I was really interested with something you said in your final paragraph. You said that " our only hope in this life and the next is Jesus Christ." Doesn't that seem kind of unfair? I have jewish and muslim friends who grew up in jewish and muslim homes and it doesn't seem right to me that they should have no hope but my friends who grew up in christian households should. I guess I could expand this in a global sense in that there are some people who, by virtue simply of the place they were born, will never experience this hope.

Brandon said...

I forgot one thing.
Just because Karen Armstrong has one thing wrong (regarding the belittling of women) doesn't mean that she is wrong about everything.
Also, I have read Armstrong's work on Islam. SHe points out that Mohammed himself empowered women, oftentimes to the chagrin of the other men of his community. It is true that this may no longer be the case in much of the islamic world today. That being said, for much of the history of christianity, cultures of predominantly christian regions systematically belittled women. Just think about wedding vows that are often given today that demand the woman's obedience to her husband. Also, as a pastor I'm sure you are familiar with Thomas Aquinas' work regarding original sin, a pillar of christianity for a very long time. Needless to say, he wasn't exactly a bra-burner.
Point is, I think it's a little unfair to systematically dismiss Karen Armstrong's work as I find very illuminating and well researched.

Todd Pruitt said...


Perhaps I should begin with one of my central convictions: Jesus Christ is the only hope for salvation (peace with God). Being a Christian who believes the Bible to be God's revelation I am convinced of Jesus' unique role as redeemer. On the cross Jesus took upon Himself the sins of God's people that they might receive the mercy of God. Theologians refer to this as the substiutionary atonement and it is essential to biblical faith.

That said I a reassert my position that Jesus Christ is our only hope in this life and the next. It is not "unfair" that many do not know or accept this reality. God is not obligated to save anyone. But in His mercy He will save untold millions (billions?) through the sacrifice of His Son. It is the sinner's error to think of God as unjust.

As to Ms. Armstrong, I will have to hold on to my skepticism that Muhammed was a great liberator of women. In my mind her lack of objectivity regarding Christianity puts all of her work in doubt. I believe the fruit of Islam compared to that of Christianity speaks for itself. When you hear the word "terrorism" the first image that pops into your mind is not the local Baptist pastor or Presbyterian elder.

Brandon said...

Sorry it took me a while to get back to you.

"It is the sinner's error to think of God as unjust." Merely claiming by fiat that God is just in an epistemological safe zone does not address the reality of the situation.

I often hear the religiously inclined spin hardships in life as 'all a part of God's plan.' It is God's will that my grandpa died, my parents divorced and my cousin was born with autism. Far be it from me to presume your own beliefs for you, but in my experience the fine print in these tragedies always seemed to read some hope for, and the assumption of, eventual good and salvation for the disadvantaged. I can see how many would, given this predisposition, claim that in fact God is just. They may be suffering now but in the end it will all work out.

However, for God to include in his plan for the salvation of only a portion of humanity is a completely different situation. It is unjust because there are those who are doomed to never know salvation, not by their own merit, but by the sheer will of God. They are doomed because they were born in regions of the world, or in times in history, where Christ will forever be unknown to them. With all due respect Todd, what makes you so special to be born in modern America where the Love of Christ is a real option for you?

I can see where you are coming from when you say, "God is not obligated to save anyone," but why does God give the opportunity of salvation to some and not others? Why are those of the modern western world blessed when others are never even given the chance? To me, nothing is more unjust than that, the withholding of eternal salvation to someone with no regard to their life or their actions.

I'm sure this is an issue that you, being a pastor, have encountered before and have struggled with yourself. I look forward to your explanation.