Tuesday, March 12, 2013


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, p. 561)

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.

A non-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 are non-essential.

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.

That’s sanctification, 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 Henry’s insight:

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...

In Christ,

Pastor George

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reconciliation-part 2

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 17:20-23, NIV)

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 toward others.

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 sin.


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 fellowship.

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 now.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Reconciliation Part-one

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 don’t.

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)

He also cautioned us to…

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.

So, how do we begin?

 Moving beyond winning

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 that do?

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 faith alone.

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 true character.

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 this way:

“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 stop it.

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 to stop.

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 first sentence.)

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), Jesus says:

“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 for yours.

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 lovelessness?

It is time to decide.

Next week I will continue with Reconciliation Part-two.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Religious Concepts—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 Doctrine.

Worshiping Doctrine

One 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.

Some of 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 Doctrine.

The problem 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.

Doctrine 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.

We make 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 5:7-9)

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!

Our idolatry 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.

Even if 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.

The problem 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.

The problem 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.

We love Concepts and fight about them in the “Lectures About God” lecture halls. We avoid the door labeled “God.”

Even now, 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:


Baptism with 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 just this.

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.

Nowhere in 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.

                  Some 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.

                  Others 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 acknowledged).

                   Some sprinkle or pour water for baptism; others call this “Satan’s counterfeit” and   require full immersion.

                   Some denominations recognize baptisms done by some other denominations. Others consider them meaningless, and insist on baptizing anyone joining their church from outside the denomination.

                   Some ritually baptize ancestors who died outside of their denomination, and even outside of the faith.

                   Some 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.

                   And 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.

Religious 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.

What in heaven does this have to do with loving God and neighbor?

It is 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.

We elevate 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.

We fabricate religious Concepts, worship them, and we hurt actual people while defending them. We fail to preserve the love of God and neighbor.

Do our 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?

In Christ,

Pastor George

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Religious Concepts - Part One

Religious Concepts

The Gospel 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 dangerous.

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.

These 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!

Yet essential.

Two Doors

Two doors 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 lectures instead?

The testimony 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.

We find other things to do instead.

We ignore 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.

But for 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.

We find other things to do instead.


These “other 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 other.

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.

Wealth, 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)

Jesus 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.”

He didn’t 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.

We 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.

Once more: 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.

Different 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.

The 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 enemy.

It is a very serious issue for the Body of Christ, and it has gone largely unnoticed or intentionally ignored, with far-reaching consequences.

There have 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

Our modern 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.

In most 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.

Various 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 own.

Saying that 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 narrative.

As these 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.

The whole 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.

This 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.

One might 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.

However, the 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.

These 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 were Concepts.

The Church 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.

But again: 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.)

Further, 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.

This is 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.

I will continue this discussing next week.

In Christ,

Pastor George