From Matthew Henry’s commentary on Psalm 122:
If all the disciples of Christ were
of one mind, and kept the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, their
enemies would be deprived of their chief advantages against them. But Satan’s
maxim always has been, to divide that he may conquer; and few Christians are
sufficiently aware of his designs.
Those who can do nothing else for
the peace of Jerusalem may pray for it. Let
us consider all who seek the glory of
the Redeemer, as our brethren and fellow-travellers, without regarding
differences which do not affect our
eternal welfare. Blessed Spirit of peace and love, who didst dwell in the
soul of the holy Jesus, descend into his church, and fill those who compose it
with his heavenly tempers; cause bitter contentions to cease, and make us to be
of one mind. Love of the brethren and love to God, ought to stir us up to seek
to be like the Lord Jesus in fervent prayer and unwearied labour, for the
salvation of men, and the Divine glory. (Mathew’s Commentary on
the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008,
Recall, if you would, all the way back to Chapter 1:
The 17th-century Lutheran Peter Meiderlin once said, “We
would be in the best shape if we kept in essentials, Unity; in non-essentials,
Liberty; and in both Charity.” This is an extremely valuable and effective
touchstone for our journey. Let’s define the terms with precision, and use that
precision to our benefit as we proceed. This will prove valuable:
An essential is
something that is necessary, utterly required
for something to be effective, true, or real. You may recall this expression
from mathematics: if and only if.
That defines an essential.
may be profoundly important, valuable or highly regarded, but it is not necessary, not required. This is a critical distinction.
Liberty means that
we do not force others to conform to our practices or beliefs on issues that
Charity means that
we treat others with respect and love, even when we disagree or differ on either essentials or non-essentials.
We need to realize that something can be non-essential in
one context and essential in another.
Plain, modest dressing is essential to being
Amish, but it is not essential to being a Christian.
Ordination is essential in many denominations to
be a priest or pastor, but it is not essential to teach or care for others.
Apostolic Succession is essential to the polity
of a church in the apostolic tradition (Roman Catholics, Anglicans, others),
but it is not essential to salvation or sanctification.
The Liturgy is essential to the worship of a
“liturgical church,” but it is not essential for a church to be Christian.
Similarly, though sanctification is non-essential to
salvation, it is essential to Life in Christ, to Covenant.
Covenant, Life in Christ, begins with salvation, is lived in
sanctification, and finishes in glorification. Sanctification is the process of learning to live and love as Jesus
did. Sanctification is the very means by which we are each conformed to
Christ’s image, where we become more like Him, where we learn to love.
So, what is essential to sanctification? What is the if
and only if of sanctification? What must
it have to proceed? And what can it proceed without?
Here’s the key understanding:
To the degree that
any of our church concepts, doctrines, worship styles, polity, and so on, aid
us in our sanctification, they are helpful, perhaps even important, but if sanctification can proceed without them, they are not essential to sanctification, and not essential
to life in Christ.
Life in Christ, covenant, is what all Christians have in
common. Sanctification is basically the living out in daily life—and in our
faith tradition—of this covenant with Him. It is where we are formed in His
image, where we are made into His bride without spot or wrinkle, where we
mature in learning to love as He did.
It is life with and in
Christ during our walk on this earth.
and every Christian grows up through
it. It is to be discipled and be a disciple—to learn “by use and practice.” To
learn to love.
Sanctification is essential and unavoidable for a Christian.
It is our daily walk and growth. So the big question is: are the elements of
your church tradition required for
sanctification, and therefore for life in Christ? Are they essential? I’m not asking if they are valuable or perhaps even
important. I’m asking if they are essential, required for sanctification. As valuable and honored as they may
be, the answer is almost certainly, “No.”
We really have to move past the non-essentials if we are to
embody the unity for which Christ prayed.
The risk in even broaching this topic is the fury that
arises when religious people fear that their beliefs and practices are being
attacked—and calling any one of them “non-essential,” even with careful definition
of what this means—is often heard as a threat to the faith. Recall Matthew
If all the disciples of Christ were
of one mind, and kept the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, their
enemies would be deprived of their chief advantages against them. But Satan’s
maxim always has been, to divide that he may conquer; and few Christians are
sufficiently aware of his designs.
I believe that with care, willingness, and charity for each
other, there is a path beyond our divisions, to a common place of safety and
godly mutual respect, to Reconciliation.
I want to begin here a series of examples of how
Reconciliation can be applied with actual followers of Jesus who differ
markedly in their Concepts, Doctrines, Subdoctrines, Worship, Polity,
Hermeneutics, dress codes and more. In other words, with Christians who often
have little or nothing to say to each other, and even less to do with each
other—except perhaps in derision and distancing themselves—lest they be tainted
by the other’s embodiment of the Faith.
If you begin to live as a Reconciler, an ambassador for the
Gospel, and are able to find the unity Jesus prayed for—with others who differ
in their Concepts (Doctrines, and so on), visit the Web site
(WhatWeBeliveAndWhy.com) of this book, and please
share your story with me. I will
post those that are appropriate online and in future editions of this book, and
let this section on Application grow.
More to come...
I believe we are at the beginning of a major reformation of
the Christian faith—a Reconciliation of believers across many boundaries that
had once separated us and put us at swords with one another.
It would be easier for any of us to
remain cocooned, but the Lord is afoot and calling us to common cause: His.
Our denominationalism, our religious wars, our vitriolic
doctrinal disputes, and the holy isolation we use to keep ourselves separate
and untainted by each other’s patterns of worship and belief, belie any claim
we make to all be Christ’s own. We each act like He is our private possession,
formed according to our image of Him, blessing just our worship, and approving only our
doctrine and our orders of ministry.
We imagine that at best He tolerates
the worship, doctrine, and polity of those who are not like us. What amazing
pride we have.
Then Jesus told this story to some
who had great confidence in their own righteousness and scorned everyone else:
“Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a
despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer:
‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t
cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that
tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
“But the tax
collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in
sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this
sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who
exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be
exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
The Pharisee is certain that he knows it all, and it seems
he has it all correct—doctrine, behavior, tithing, isolation from the
sinful—but none of it counts before God.
Yet the prayer of the sinner, seeking mercy, counts for everything.
The pattern for us is in heaven: All the angels and tribes
around the throne aren’t arguing about who is most right, nor jostling to see
who gets to sit at Jesus' right hand. They are not identical, but they are
side-by-side, adjacent, in awe and
ministering together to the Lamb.
The earthly incarnation of this heavenly scene is just how
we should work together. It is the heart of Jesus, and it should be our heart
as well. It should be your heart.
It should reflect this common desire: We respect each
other’s tribe. We work and minister together, yoked to each other and to Him.
We love each other as one.
Jesus makes this blazingly clear in His prayer for His
disciples and for us:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I
pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of
them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also
be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them
the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you
in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know
that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John
We have failed miserably to do this in our past. Perhaps now
we can at last begin to do as Jesus commands.
So to restate the point: We have taken the narrative telling
of Life With God, written down as Scripture, and (in a process that owes its
methods to Greek philosophy) drawn from it multitudes of religious Concepts, and
from them multitudes of ideas about doctrine, worship, polity, hermeneutics,
behavior, dress, ordination and much more, and then we have separated into
religious tribes, each idolizing and worshiping its own Concepts, and fighting
the tribes that idolize and worship other Concepts.
The Concepts can have usefulness in drawing and introducing
people to God, and in helping them understand what He desires of them. But as
often as not, they grow instead into idols, and are worshiped in place of the
God that they were developed to help explain.
Some may be more helpful than others, and some may well be
quite wrong, but this difference provides no justification for the scorn and
often violence we have shown toward each other. Worse, the way we have behaved
is radically contrary to what Jesus
has told us to do, and it is Him who
we all claim as Lord!
For a true Reconciliation of the faith to occur, there must
be a reconciliation of the faithful, and a coming together to embody the unity
for which Jesus prayed. We do not have to
surrender our favorite Concepts, or patterns of worship, polity,
ordination, or even doctrine, to be
reconciled. We can even continue to wrestle with each other about these,
but we cannot do so without first acknowledging our own idolatry, confessing
our lovelessness toward each other, repenting of it, stopping it, forgiving each other, and taking action to bless and
protect each other—that is, we have to incarnate
the love Jesus called us to do
He desires that unity from us—honoring, safeguarding, and
building each other up—not just when we reach heaven, but now. But we each have to confess, forgive, and then live with
reconciling love for the faithful, refusing any longer to scorn or harm each
other in defense of ourselves and our religious Concepts.
Remind the people to respect the
government and be law-abiding, always ready to lend a helping hand. No insults, no fights. God’s people
should be bighearted and courteous.
It wasn’t so long ago that we
ourselves were stupid and stubborn, dupes of sin, ordered every which way by
our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back. But when God, our kind and loving Savior
God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had
nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new
people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out
new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and
given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life! You
can count on this.
I want you to put your foot down.
Take a firm stand on these matters so that those who have put their trust in
God will concentrate on the essentials
that are good for everyone. Stay away from mindless, pointless quarreling over
genealogies and fine print in the law code. That gets you nowhere. Warn a
quarrelsome person once or twice, but then be done with him. It’s obvious that
such a person is out of line, rebellious against God. By persisting in
divisiveness he cuts himself off. (Titus 3:1-11, The message.)
We need to stop trashing each other! It doesn’t matter how
many religious words we use, how many Scriptures we quote, how much we disagree
with the religious Concepts, doctrines, or practices of other believers—we do not have the right to treat them with
lovelessness. In truth, we are required to treat them with love—action to bless them. And let’s be
clear: Pretending to “love” someone by “enlightening” them with sarcasm, shame,
or cruel words is not love. It is
With any text as large and content-rich as the New Testament
is, one could probably pick any of a hundred themes and construct a Concept out
of it and proclaim it to be the central message of Jesus. Even knowing this,
and being aware of all that I’ve just cautioned against, I’ll dare to suggest
that Jesus’ key teaching is just exactly what has been addressed above—reconciliation—the reconciliation of
people to God, and to each other. This is salvation, and the beginning of the
covenant He offered.
This reconciliation unfolds through love, repentance, and
forgiveness, but it begins with love. The character of love is embodied in how
Jesus lived and opened the way to God for others. Though He made it clear that
He had come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), He
quickly recast the understanding of God’s intentions. God was not a rule-giver
who required rule-following in order for anyone to have approval or access;
rather, He offered openness to all, even those desperately lost in sin. He did
not approve of sin, but He did invite sinners to come close to Him. When they
came close, they fell in love, their hearts turned, forgiveness was granted,
and they were reconciled with God. This was and is salvation, the initiation of
Life in Christ, covenant with God.
The many stories of Jesus eating with and encountering
sinners, which rankled the self-righteous religious people around Him, gives
testimony to this open presence of love in Him. But perhaps one of the most
compelling testimonies is also the shortest:
Tax collectors and other notorious
sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and
teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful
people—even eating with them! (Luke 15:1-2)
The second sentence shows how the religious people responded
to what Jesus did with sinners, but dwell just a moment on the first sentence: “Tax collectors and
other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach.”
What a revealing insight: The despised agents of the Romans,
and notorious sinners, somehow feel safe with
Jesus. You know it wasn’t because He was saying their sins were of no concern.
But does anyone suppose for a moment that they flocked to be near and learn
from the self-righteous religious people who looked down on them and condemned
them? Of course not.
Look at Jesus’ stunning encounter with the woman caught in
adultery. The self-righteous said she should be stoned for her sin, to which He
replied that the one without sin should cast the first stone. After they all
fled, having been convicted by His words,
He said to her, “Woman, where are
those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
(John 8:10b-11, NKJV)
Jesus doesn’t tell her the sin was not sin, but He
implicitly forgives her for it, and then tells her not to do it again.
Certainly the love she experienced in this encounter filled her and
strengthened her not to fall so easily again.
She is treated as one beloved, who has been lost—not as one
despised who must be publicly shamed and harmed.
All the way back in Chapter 2 I talked about salvation. This
is it. It is being reconciled to God, and it comes not through our efforts to
be good, or right, but by the love of
God. When we realize our distance from Him, how we have wasted what we have
received, and realized—at last—that life with the Father even in its most
humble forms is better than life with the pigs, then He willingly restores
us—joyfully, with abundance, with sonship! That is salvation; that is what the name Jesus means, in His very name, and in His teachings, life, love and
sacrifice. He is the author and finisher of reconciliation, because our faith
in Him brings all of us before Him, together.
He is the foundation we all can stand upon together.
He is the One who can bring unity to all believers.
All who know this love can stand adjacent together before
the throne, fully reconciled though they
differ in religious Concepts, doctrine, worship, polity and all the rest.
They honor each other’s tribe, and even honor what is important to that tribe, even when it is not
essential to Salvation, or Sanctification, or Glorification.
They watch out for and protect each other, rather than themselves.
They do not fight over the pedigree of the other’s
They cling to the essential,
which is the reconciling love of God that Jesus offers, and the Life in Christ
that it initiates.
They enter into covenant.
They listen and do simply as Jesus said:
Love God, neighbor and even enemy.
Treat others the way you want to be treated.
People matter. Things don’t.
There is no “yes, but…” There is confession, repentance,
stopping, forgiveness, love and unity in the One who came to reconcile all of
us to God, and to keep us in His covenant.
This truly is good news. Let’s choose to live it, beginning
It is my deep prayer that we all find our hearts broken by
the lovelessness we have shown for one another in the Body of Christ. Though we
all claim Jesus as Lord and Savior, we defend our religious Concepts, doctrines
and practices as if they are our gods and other people as if they are obstacles
to our worship of these gods. We act as though such things matter and people
We would rather be right in our own eyes than loving in
God’s eyes. Even when we realize we have spoken evil of others, rather than
repent, we justify our words or actions with a “yes, but…” and an explanation.
Yet Paul said to:
Speak evil of no one … be
peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. (Titus 3:2, NKJV)
Avoid foolish disputes,
genealogies, contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are
unprofitable and useless. (Titus 3:9, NKJV)
Instead of real unity in Christ, we war over our differing
Concepts about Him. What a mess we’ve made of fulfilling “that all of them may
be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:21a, NIV)
We can change
this! Here is what we are called to:
And all of this is a gift from God,
who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task
of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to
himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this
wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is
making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to
God!” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)
We are called to bring the Gospel message of reconciliation
to the world, yet we ourselves have failed to be reconciled with one another,
and have too easily discarded the Jesus’ clear commands about love of God,
neighbor and even enemy!
God’s concern is always about love, always about loving
relationships, always about building up and not harming. His concern is not
about the mere fulfillment of ritual obligations, or the following of law.
So Christ has truly set us free.
Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the
law. … For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the
law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.
But we who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive everything promised to us
who are right with God through faith.
For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, it makes no difference to
God whether we are circumcised or not circumcised [that is, whether we have
followed the ritual rules]. What is important is faith expressing itself in
love. You were getting along so well. Who has interfered with you to hold you
back from following the truth? It certainly isn’t God, for He is the one who
called you to freedom. (Galatians 5:1, 4-8, NLT First Edition.)
I don’t know about you, but this is very scary to me. It is
much easier for me to try to follow, apply and impose rules all the time. The
rules were there for a reason. They helped us understand right from wrong. But
the true love that allows us to live as God desires us to live requires
transcendence. And it calls us to freedom.
That transcendence is given to us in the simple command,
“Love God,” and in the simple application, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When we do this, we have fulfilled the law, we have transcended the law, and we
have been set free by transcendent love.
Love is transcendent, it comes from the Source of our
creation, and it approaches people and circumstances with a heavenly view, not
just a worldly one. Where the Pharisee saw a prostitute, Jesus saw a woman
needing the love of God; where those who would stone an adulteress saw the Law
violated, Jesus gave freedom from condemnation. Where others saw a despised
tax-collector, or a Samaritan, or a blind man, or a demon-possessed man, or
sick or dead, Jesus saw His beloved children, and His love brushed aside the
judgments of men, invaded this kingdom of earth and its laws (even the laws of
time and space), and revealed the transcendent love of the Kingdom of God.
It is to this that we are called.
I’ve personally been involved in many reconciliations—and
attempted reconciliations—between individuals and other individuals, or with
their families, churches, and even their histories and identities.
The work of reconciliation stinks. It is enormously
difficult and often nearly impossible. The primary cause of failure is
self-righteousness. One side, usually both, thinks reconciliation consists of
the other side confessing and admitting he or she was wrong.
This is not reconciliation. It is triumph! Even when I act
all friendly and cooperative, saying that I truly want to reconcile with you,
to be restored, my true-but-unspoken agenda is for you to admit I was right all
along. I want to be vindicated and I want you defeated. If you’ll surrender,
then we can be reconciled.
Generally people who are against each other have a long list
of grievances, of “wrongs” done to them, accusations of revisionism (recalling
history in a distorted, self-serving way), little willingness to reconsider
their own actions and opinions, and even less willingness to actually love the
other, especially in the sense that Jesus called us to. Oh, I might claim to
love you, even make a show of reconciling, but afterward I want nothing to do
with you again. I may forgive you for your sins—real or perceived—but I won’t
confess or ask forgiveness for my own.
These flawed notions of reconciliation are even more
pronounced when it comes to our favorite religious Concepts, and our
denominations and allies—even when all involved call themselves Christians. It
becomes all about our side winning. And though we seldom admit it, it is
equally important to us that your side loses.
Our hearts are not right.
Reconciliation is never about winning and losing. It is
about loving God and neighbor. This love is an act of blessing, not a warm
feeling. It is faith lived out by showing love, care, protection, not by believing
the right things.
Believing the right things is worthless when we are
loveless. Faith is empty when it is without love.
Yes indeed, it is good when you
obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as
yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin.
You are guilty of breaking the law. For the person who keeps all of the laws
except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. For the
same God who said, “You must not commit adultery,” also said, “You must not
murder.” So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still
broken the law.
So whatever you say or whatever you
do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. There will
be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been
merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.
What good is it, dear brothers and
sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that
kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food
or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat
well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does
So you see, faith by itself isn’t
enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
Now someone may argue, “Some people
have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith
if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”
You say you have faith, for you
believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and
they tremble in terror. How foolish!
Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?
Don’t you remember that our
ancestor Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered
his son Isaac on the altar? You see, his faith and his actions worked together.
His actions made his faith complete.
And so it happened just as the Scriptures say: “Abraham believed God, and God
counted him as righteous because of his faith.” He was even called the friend
of God. So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by
Rahab the prostitute is another
example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those
messengers and sent them safely away by a different road. Just as the body is
dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works. (James 2:8-26)
This passage from James bears reading again and again. It is
relentless in separating declarations of faith, and even right doctrine, from
what really matters: love manifested by action. This love—agape in Greek—really means to bless or protect someone by action,
rather than warm feelings or positive declarations that do nothing.
Acting to serve and
bless another is the core of such love. It may produce deep feelings of
affection in its wake, but it is the willing action to show mercy that is its
More, this willing action is not just to help those we like!
It means everyone, including pagans, atheists, heretics, legalists,
denominationalists, polemic authors, the self-righteous, those who refuse to
reconcile, dangerous enemies and cranky neighbors. No exceptions. Jesus put it
“You have heard the law that says,
‘Love your neighbor’, and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray
for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children
of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the
good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only
those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors
do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from
anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your
Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
If we take these words seriously, surely they must bring us
to our knees in repentance. Each of us, individually, is such a rank failure at
loving in this way that we shun even looking seriously at our own sin here. It
is much easier to justify my self-righteous scorn for those with whom I
disagree, than it is to consider my own sinfulness in the way I have treated
them, spoken of them and thought about them! I can call them “enemies of the
Cross” or “the scarlet whore,” or any of a thousand other epithets, and justify
my violence—verbal or physical—as a defense of Jesus and the Gospel, but I can
only do this by ignoring the actual requirements of Jesus and the Gospel.
Step one in reconciliation is to repent for our own lovelessness, and
We have to actually admit that our attitudes, judgments,
words and actions against others are partisan, unloving and scornful. In the
worst of times they are even violent. They are sin, plain and simple. We need
More, such sin toward others cannot be excused by accusing
them of the same sin, or by pointing out how wrong or hurtful their actions and
religious Concepts might be. Even if we are absolutely right in our Doctrine,
our scorn in its defense is divisive: It is heresy because of its lovelessness.
Jesus’ response to wrong Concepts, false charges and hurtful
actions gives us the model of what followers of His are to do:
When false witnesses testified
against our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, He remained silent; and when
unfounded charges were brought against Him, He returned no answer, believing
that His whole life and conduct among the Jews were a better refutation than
any answer to the false testimony, or than any formal defense against the accusations.
(Origen, Against Celsus, the very
Instead of condemnation of others, Jesus counsels loving
action for their benefit. He demonstrated His love through His life and
conduct, not through self-defense. Instead of judgment, He counsels not
judging. Above all, even where we have been wronged (or where we believe Jesus
and the Gospel have been wronged and we want to raise swords in their defense),
“Do not judge and you will not be
judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be
forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down,
shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the
measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 637-38)
So Jesus says don’t judge, don’t condemn, but give (this is
love as willing action), and forgive.
Treat others the way you want to be treated.
Step two in reconciliation is for us to forgive.
This is required even when it has not been asked of us,
because until we forgive we are still bound to our adversary. The word forgive
that Jesus uses means to set free. It does not mean to approve of what someone
else has done. In fact, the idea really is to give up a legitimate claim.
True forgiveness does not require the other person to
concede to me, to confess to me, to repent to me, or to ask for forgiveness
from me—only that I forgive. And like love, it is not a feeling to be waited
upon, but rather an action, a choice. Feeling will follow, but what matters is
the action to forgive, to release the legitimate claim.
Confession, repentance, and even punishment for my enemies
may be necessary for the well-being of their souls, but are not necessary for the
well-being of mine. In fact, if I require them of others before I’ll forgive
them, then I am still seeking triumph, not love.
Full reconciliation and restoration requires that both I and
the other repent and forgive, but I cannot withhold mine until the other
completes his or hers. Such a precondition keeps me bound.
My willingness to forgive without precondition is how I
complete my second step in reconciliation. This willingness frees me from the
bondage of desiring vindication, of needing to win, and needing my adversary to
lose. This is true about sin done to me, whether about money, love, family,
work, culture, oppression, abuse, or religious Concepts.
"You have heard the law that says
the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a
tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the
right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your
shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.”(Matthew 5:38-40)
If we really dwell on what Jesus commands here, it must
unsettle us deeply. He’s asking for more even than just forgiveness, which is
the dropping of a just claim. Normal justice is getting back what has been
taken—literally, getting even. Forgiveness is not seeking recompense, not seeking
payback, not getting even. It is releasing the claim. Yet Jesus calls for more:
love. Yes, love! No, not warm feelings toward an adversary, but action to bless
them! That’s the point of offering the other cheek to someone angry with you,
or giving your coat to someone who is awarded your shirt by a judge. It may not
make a lot of sense to our rational mind, or in our litigious culture, or even
to our sense of personal justice, but it is how Jesus says we are sons of God.
Let’s be honest: This is utterly beyond any of our normal
concepts of equity, justice or fair dealing. It is downright outside of the
box! Yet it is how we learn to truly love each other, even neighbor and enemy.
We might have a glimmer of understanding about the nature of
such transcendent forgiveness in our relational lives, with family, friends,
acquaintances, neighbors, perhaps even political adversaries—and all the
struggle and emotion these relationships contain. But we seem to fiercely
resist forgiveness when we are defending our culture or our nation. We resist
even more when we defend our religious Concepts. It’s as if their religiousness
exempts us from the clear instructions of Jesus about forgiveness. It doesn’t!
Again, the issue here is not whether my Concepts are more
“right” than your Concepts, or even if you’ve treated me badly in attacking my
Concepts. It isn’t about getting even. The issue is whether I’m willing to do
what Jesus asked of me, and that is to repent of my hard heart, and forgive you
God is not looking for repayment,
but repentance. What heals a broken relationship is sincere love and
contrition. What’s wrong with us isn’t a rap sheet of bad deeds, but a damaged
heart, a soul-sickness, that plunges us into fearful self-protection,
alienation from God and others. Paradoxically, this leads to death: “whoever
would save his life will lose it” (Matthew 16:25).
With repentance and forgiveness, I can move beyond winning
and discover reconciliation, which is, simply, to truly love God, neighbor and
even enemy. But will I? Or will I persist in my self-justification and
Next week I will continue with Reconciliation Part-two.
This is part
2 of my discussion on Religious Concepts. The last discussion ended on How It Began: Building Religious Concepts
From Scripture I will move onto Worshiping
important product of Christian religious Concepts is Doctrine, essentially a
set of ideas and themes drawn from a Concept, and woven together to assert a
specific philosophical tenet that generally was often not explicitly present in
the scriptural text, but was imputed from it by linking several verses and
ideas found there. Some are fairly straightforward and provoke little
controversy, while others continue to be contested.
these Doctrines are labeled heresies, usually because they tended to divide the
Church into factions, or because they contained elements that appeared to
misrepresent God, or contradicted the dominant Doctrines of the period.
There is an
old saying: “History is written by the victors.” This helps in understanding
why we believe what we believe today in the Church, at least in terms of
begins to unveil itself here: Once a Doctrine gains sufficient prominence, it
tends to draw not just advocates, but worshipers. Instead of worshiping God
alone, we worship Doctrines about God, and promote and defend them
passionately. They are easier to understand and control than a Being Who is
Holy, Wholly Other, Omnipotent and Omniscient.
Even if I
believe God loves me, and desires loving relationship with me, His power and otherness frighten me—as they should.
doesn’t scare me. As with wealth, fame, success, and possessions, I want to
hold on to my doctrine and defend it. And like wealth, fame, success, and
possessions, I can and do make an idol of it.
We die for
and kill for idols all the time. Humans always have. We still do. Whether
“honor” or position, fame or religion, nationalism or race, gender or beauty,
we tend to idolize what we want or
want to keep, and we fight for it, often regardless of the harm we do to other
people or to our world.
idols and fight to defend them. We justify such battles with self-righteous
explanations, and we labor to get others to bend to our will or submit to our
vision. Such idolatry is not unique to Christians, or even to religion, but it
is common to our humanity. This is why Scripture is so compelling, and why we
must listen again to God’s first commandment:
You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for
yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the
earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the
LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any
other gods. (Deuteronomy
In the event
that anyone thinks this passage is simply about tribal gods made of stone or
wood, and not about idols like pride or
fame or property or wealth—or idols of Doctrine, Ritual, even
Hermeneutics—just read the Bible. It is replete with such idols and
exhortations against them. We began all of those kinds of idolatry right at the
beginning, and they were well-known to God and to the ancient authors of
Scripture. We were warned early!
of Concept—especially the part called Doctrine and supposedly all about God and
holy behavior—leads us to attack, disfellowship, injure and hate others who
cling to different Doctrines, or to none.
their Doctrines are wrong, we conduct our debates as if we are exempt from God’s commandments
about loving neighbors and even enemies. We attack and belittle others. We
treat them with condescension and sarcasm, full of ourselves and with
self-righteousness. At our worst, we murder our opponents en masse. The
partisanship for and the idolatry of our Doctrine wounds the heart of God. Our
actions are wrong—even if our
Doctrines are right.
is rooted in our focus on Doctrines, and debate about them, rather than on loving relationship with God and neighbor.
If we want
evidence that the Church has forgotten what Jesus taught, we need only consider
the state of the Church—disputing not over how better to live as Jesus called
us to live, or about love of God and each other, but over Concepts: doctrine, worship, authority, liturgy, baptism,
gender, Communion, translation, hermeneutics, tradition, tongues, evolution,
end-times, titles, music, rapture and the internal structure of God. And a
thousand thousand more. We have collapsed into a heap of warring factions, followers
of this Concept fighting followers of that
Concept. We are obsessed.
is that our foundation is not God, not even Scripture. It is instead
Philosophy, and its Concepts.
We are not
doing what Jesus told us to do.
Concepts and fight about them in the “Lectures About God” lecture halls. We
avoid the door labeled “God.”
seeing this achingly clearly perhaps for the first time, we will likely return
to our fights, and we will find other things to do. We will justify our sin as
a defense of God.
Here is an
example of the concepts we fight about and how the problem manifests:
water in Scripture is a physical action with spiritual meaning. It signifies
initiation and acceptance by God, was and is used by Jews to signify repentance
and purity (both literally and figuratively), and occurs in the New Testament
with John baptizing both repentant Jews, and Jesus. Later Jesus instructs His
disciples to take the Good News to all nations and baptize them “in the name of
the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) We later read of the disciples doing
There are no rules given in Scripture
regarding who can do baptism or receive it, although many rules have been formulated based upon
various verses referring to baptism, as well as upon varying Concepts of God and the Church.
Scripture will you find a formula for only an adult making a specific and
individual profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and then
being fully immersed in water, with certain unfailing words, in order to be
baptized and become a member of the church. But today you will find certain
sects of Christians who will insist that certain specific rituals and practices
about this are necessary, or not, to the true faith.
will baptize infants unfailingly, and adults only if they had not been baptized
as infants. These sects will not re-baptize an adult if he or she was baptized
as an infant, believing baptism can only happen once, though they normatively
require someone baptized as a child to go through “confirmation” when they reach
the age of reason, and then profess
their faith in Jesus.
refuse to baptize infants, insisting that only an adult can make a true
profession of faith, and only after this
can baptism occur. If an adult was baptized as an infant, it is considered no
baptism at all, and re-baptizing is required
(though of course it isn’t considered “re-” because the first baptism isn’t
sprinkle or pour water for baptism; others call this “Satan’s counterfeit” and
require full immersion.
denominations recognize baptisms done by some other denominations. Others
consider them meaningless, and insist on baptizing anyone joining their church
from outside the denomination.
ritually baptize ancestors who died outside of their denomination, and even
outside of the faith.
churches will allow followers of Jesus to receive Communion in their church
only if they have been baptized. Others will allow anyone professing faith to
receive Communion. Still others will allow anyone who desires it to receive
Communion. Some will allow only members of their denomination, and who have
been baptized in their denomination, to receive Communion in their church.
some believe, as in the story I told back in Chapter 3, that unless you have
been baptized in their single local church, you are still lost in your sins.
Every one of
these positions on baptism is argued voluminously by countless authors over
many centuries, and those who disagree with any of these positions have either
fled or been forced out of their churches. Although today these debates consist, at best, of lengthy analysis and
argument, and at worst of ad hominem
accusations, sarcasm and disfellowship, over the centuries thousands of people
were literally tortured and killed for choosing one side or another
in this disagreement.
It was and
still is a scandal.
Every one of
these rituals and practices (as well as the Doctrines and Canons that accompany
them) came from a religious Concept, drawn from pieces of Scripture and tradition,
and reasoned out in a thoroughly analytical Greek way, and then used as a plumb
line by which to judge the faith and worthiness of individuals and other
Concepts of Jesus range from believing He is actually literally also Father God
and Holy Spirit (manifesting Himself as each as needed), to three Persons in
One God, to belief that He was a liberal political activist (not divine at all)
railroaded to death by conservative enemies. All of these, and thousands of others, are the excuse for bitter dispute,
division, divorce, disfellowship, and with many, even torture and killing.
heaven does this have to do with loving God and neighbor?
attention to things, not God or people. Even if we are thoroughly convinced
that our Concept is superior to the other Concepts, how sad it must make the
heart of God to see us viciously attack and separate from each other for the
defense of our favorites.
things above people. Even though our “things” are built with religious words,
and are partly derived from Scripture, they are still Concepts, not God and not
human beings! Jesus did not set aside
the Law and the Prophets, but He did insist they hang upon, and are subservient
to, love of God and neighbor.
religious Concepts, worship them, and we hurt actual people while defending them. We fail to preserve the
love of God and neighbor.
Concepts outrank love of God and neighbor? Sadly, the answer is yes. No
excuses. It is what we have come to. God forgive us. What shall we do?
is arguably God’s greatest revelation to us, but if we worship our Concepts
about it, rather than live it, we render it worthless—and we can become
We all have
methods of thinking and feeling about things—analyzing,
measuring, judging, accepting, rejecting, praising, weeping—to determine
whether something is to us: true, valuable, dangerous, trite, profound,
unimportant, beautiful, and so on.
methods are partly rooted in our common humanity, and partly taught to us by
our cultures, our experiences, and our educational training in the social,
scientific, religious, psychological, and emotional worlds we all inhabit.
These vary considerably across the world and through history.
It is a very
difficult thing to try to see and feel something afresh, free of these methods,
or even to realize that these methods are
limiting us in how we comprehend and
emotionally respond. And yet even if that assertion is granted, and the
desire is present to realize and then step beyond our ingrained methods of
thinking and feeling, it is really
hard to do—near to impossible!
stand before us. One is labeled “God,” and the other, “Lectures About
God.” Everyone is lined up to go through
the second, because going through the first is too frightening. But if (as
Scripture reveals) there is a God who is Creator of us and all that is around
us—and who is Other than us and beyond our comprehension, but who desires relationship with us and reveals Himself
to us (to the degree that we can receive it, which He knows)—and makes covenant
with us and offers us access to Himself and reconciliation even when we have
left Him … then why would we choose
of Scripture, which is the testimony of generations of people He created and
led and loved, is just this: He desires and makes available to us a loving,
chastening, and deepening relationship with Himself, a covenant. He offers
counsel on what makes this possible and what hinders it. He chases after us
even when we rebel. He desires us to be with Him so much that He willingly
suffered death to demonstrate it. He cares for us and tells us to care for each
other things to do instead.
Him. Or deny He exists. For agnostics and atheists, at least they can claim no
obligation to follow His commands, or His teaching on love. Instead they must
construct their own systems of relationships, justice, and organization. And
these stand or fall based on efficacy, or power, or inattention.
those who claim to believe in God, we seem largely to fail often, and often
miserably, at living out what He called us to do as our part of the covenant. As His creations, you’d think following
His lead would be our heart’s desire.
other things to do instead.
DISTRACTIONS AND AMBITIONS
things” include the obvious: work, entertainment, hobbies, food, sports, and
other distractions. These are not ungodly in and of themselves; they are an
issue only when they consume us and diminish or replace love of God and each
But there is
another class of “other things” that is innately ungodly, though it has the
guise of godliness: when we elevate “things” over love of God or people.
Here I do
not just mean the conspicuous “things” of ambition: wealth, fame, success,
possessions. These can easily replace God on the throne of our hearts, and our pursuit of any of them can run roughshod
over people who get in our way.
fame, success, and possessions can be
handled with humility and caring, but they carry obvious danger both in their
pursuit, and in reliance upon them once obtained.
But this is
all well and often proclaimed. It is not my focus here. Rather it is our
willing idolatry of religious things, and our vicious defense of them.
What is most
insidious among those who claim belief in God is the idolatry of religious
doctrine, worship, polity and culture, and the use of disagreement on these as
an excuse to mistreat others. This ranges from disregard to shunning to verbal
attack to physical assault to murder to genocide. All in an alleged defense of
God, who is omnipotent and needs no defenders. It would seem silly were it not
so profoundly tragic.
There is a
reason Jesus spoke of two great commandments rather than just the one to love
God. He saw that those who claimed to love God were using it as an excuse for
all manner of ungodly behavior toward other people. (See Mark 7:6-13 and John
8:1-11) He said, “All the Law and the
Prophets hang on these two commandments.”(Matthew 22:40, NIV) Then He immediately illustrated the command
to “love your neighbor as yourself” by describing to His listeners a neighbor
who was a Samaritan—a despised outsider whose religious beliefs were flawed.
(See Luke 10:25-37 and John 4:20-22)
eliminated the loophole of claiming “neighbor” to be someone like us who we
love anyway (or who has religious beliefs we approve of). And on the outside
chance that someone might claim that an “enemy” fell outside even the broadest
category of neighbor, He said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate
you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
leave any loopholes.
Let me first
spell out explicitly how we have violated Jesus’ commandments in seeming to be
His followers, and then propose a heart-understanding He has given us that can
act as a corrective to this misapprehension and misapplication of His teachings
and sacrifice—so that His love for us may no longer be wasted. Or worse, that
He does not even recognize us as one of His own.
Christians have a serious problem, and we need to see it and confess it before
we can be redeemed from it. So I will be blunt and thorough in describing it,
and I will pray for God’s grace in its solution.
Much of what has seemed, over the centuries, like a vital defense of God, or of
Jesus, or of the Christian faith, has in fact been a battle of concepts within
a philosophical framework that is ultimately foreign to the God who reveals
Himself in the Bible.
denominations have different philosophical
structures (of doctrines, worship styles, etc). Different theologians and
movements within and outside of denominations also have different philosophical structures they defend.
followers of these many structures constantly and fiercely attack one another,
and are praised for doing so by their fellow adherents. The overarching battle of concepts rewards and promotes
this ungodly behavior, because this battle of concepts is founded on “defending
God” by means of attacking those who do not share their beliefs. In the process
of “defending God,” they violate Jesus’ command to love God, neighbor and
It is a very
serious issue for the Body of Christ, and it has gone largely unnoticed or
intentionally ignored, with far-reaching consequences.
been battles over small parts of it, but the larger issue has been missed. I
believe God is afoot in bringing us to a realization of the problem, and intends
to redeem us and it to His good purposes, but we have to face this disorder and
call it out.
How It Began: Building Religious
Concepts From Scripture
age and the whole Western world owes its foundation to ancient Greece. In the
several hundred years before the birth of Christ, Greece produced some of the
greatest minds of all time, and from them whole schools of philosophy,
geometry, science, and more.
cases those schools of thought encompassed all of these topics as an integrated
whole: The universe was seen by many of these gifted thinkers with the beauty
of pure geometric forms expressed in the symmetry of nature, in the planets and
their motions, in the mathematical means to build great buildings and temples
with extraordinary precision, or simply to think through the pure discipline of
geometry and the proofs that could be deduced from simple premises.
groups and individuals have pulled from the scriptural narrative various themes and ideas, fabricated them into a philosophical structure, a religious Concept,
have used this to guide the production of Doctrine, Ritual, Polity and more—as
well as to interpret other themes and ideas in Scripture and in the world—and
have given the Conceptual structure an independent status and reputation of its
various religious groups fabricated
them is not meant to imply fraud, but rather an extended and complex process of
analysis, extraction, abstraction, categorization, comparison, critique,
deduction, induction, and careful fabrication—piece by piece, category by
category, syllogism by syllogism, reference by reference—until whole Concepts
emerged from this pulling of themes
and ideas from the scriptural
major religious Concepts evolved, they generated layers of sub concepts,
including doctrines and practices, patterns of worship, methods of authority
and organization (polity) forms of both promotion and defense, and more. This
produced vast warehouses of Concepts, often each headed by a religious genius.
fabrication process of Christian religious Concepts is simply Greek in its origins and methods. As
noted, all of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East had been under the
deep influence of Greek philosophical teaching, methods and culture for centuries before the first New Testament
book was written. Even the Old Testament itself had been rewritten in Greek (the
Septuagint) because it was a language most Jews spoke—like nearly everyone else
in that day and place.
Concept-building process, at least in its early stages, may not even have been
an intrinsically bad thing. In humble hands such Concepts could help to share
God’s love with others.
even say that this is just what Paul did in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles.
He “contextualized” the God of Israel into concepts that his hearers would
understand, so that they might accept the invitation of forgiveness and
salvation, the covenant that Jesus shared and embodied.
key point is that much of early Christian writing and debate—as well as the
establishment of the Church after Constantine, the complete integration of the
Church into the Roman Empire’s political structures, the energetic
establishment of Doctrine and Creed, Rituals, Practices, forms of Worship,
Polity, Hermeneutical methods, the development of Systematic Theology, and then
the division of the Church into countless denominations (tens of thousands at
this point)—all owe their foundations to
Greek philosophical methods and culture.
produced Concepts about God and man, and these Concepts multiplied and gained
independent recognition and authority. They were about God, and about Scripture
(the Story of Life with God: both Old and New Testament), and they contained
vocabulary from Scripture (as well as Greek philosophy), but they were neither God nor Scripture. They
was steeped in things Greek even from its first moment, because the culture of
the Middle East had already been Greek for
more than three centuries. As the Church matured, this influence of Greek
philosophical methods—of thinking, analyzing, categorizing and describing—only
deepened. In the centuries after Jesus, it changed the Church from a
Greek-influenced Jewish movement in and about Judea, to a largely Greek-culture
religious institution throughout the Mediterranean, with a Roman governmental
structure and Roman norms of authority and hierarchy.
Long before Thomas Aquinas “rediscovered” the Greeks and their methods of
reasoning, their ways of doing philosophy, their ways of fabricating
philosophical structures, Greek philosophy was already the foundation of the Christian Church’s religious
Concepts. It was in the DNA of the Church, though the Church seemed unaware of
it, or unaware that it had been so thoroughly infiltrated and overtaken.
This is not
a new revelation or big secret. It is the analytical and creative thought
process by which Christian religious Concepts, and their subsequent doctrines,
dogma, creeds, rituals, liturgy, worship, practices, polities, canons, and even
hermeneutics were formulated. (And this is not to deny the work of the Holy
Spirit in any of this, but as we will see shortly, the products of the process
take on a life of their own.)
these Concepts have more in common with scientific hypotheses than they do with settled truth, yet over time they are
treated as if they have arrived fully revealed from the pen of the Almighty.
sometimes called a “Protestant problem” is because Scripture is held in high
esteem by many Protestants (i.e., Sola
Scriptura—“Scripture Alone” is the authority), and Church Tradition is held
to be nonessential, or at least less essential. Roman Catholics (and some
Protestants, including Anglicans and Lutherans) on the other hand, hold Church
Tradition very high, along with Reason. But what is so highly esteemed in this
theological trinity (Scripture, Tradition and Reason) is also its weakness: The
way in which Greek philosophy provided the framework of Tradition and Reason
led to Concepts that were fundamentally analyses,
not laws; they may have been well-thought-through, but they were not proofs and
not revelations from God—and though the Holy Spirit is invoked looking back at
the process, His presence is not so self-evident as the proponents claim. These
Concepts may have seemed important and valuable in the growth of the Church,
but they were elevated beyond their function and station, and the Greek origin
of the process was largely considered of no great matter. But it was key to this entire development.
continue this discussing next week.