Friday, June 20, 2014

Sinner's Prayers in the Hands of an Angry Blogger

I believe I’ll end up spending a sizable portion of my life combating the disastrous effects of easy believism and the reduction of salvation to the recital of a superstitious prayer found no where in the Bible. The typical bent of my writing is to correct the rampant error of seeker-sensitive theology that scoffs at the notion of a narrow gate. This putrid theology is not merely limited to the likes of Rick Warren and Andy Stanley and others who have established themselves as invincible structures because of hugely successful books, massive churches and name recognition. This theology is widespread. Consider how many of the people you know consider themselves to be Believers and base it upon statements like this:
“I prayed the prayer at age 3.”
“I prayed the prayer at age 5 and then again at age 9.”

Whaaaaatt???? What are you saying? That’s how you know you’re a Christian??? Because you recited a prayer verbatim when you were a little kid? No repentance? No conviction over sin? No desire to obey God?

The irony of this whole situation is that all the wrong people are certain of their salvation and all the wrong people have no assurance. We have people who think they’re not going to spend an eternity in hell because of something they were emotionally manipulated into doing as a child -- long before they had the cognitive capacity to know exactly what they just did. There’s no brokenness over sin in their life now. No desire to obey God. No effort to serve Him. They love the things He hates and hate the things He loves.

Here’s where the whole theological disaster gets even messier: genuine believers are under the impression the only thing they should feel guilty about is feeling guilty.
“Grace, man. Jesus is all about grace.”
“Jesus died for your sins, man. No need to beat yourself up.”

What? You don’t think someone should be upset that they keep sinning? When our sin is why God had to send His Son to die? God poured out His wrath on His perfect Son as a propitiation for our sins and we should NOT be broken over our sin??? All of our sin should upset us. And when our sin upsets us we know that we are God’s children. When we begin changing and becoming more like Christ we know we are God’s children. When we keep wondering why God chose us it’s not a sign that we should pray the prayer again but a sign that we are genuinely confused why a holy and just God would choose such a wretched sinner.

This, dear friends, is the real sinner’s prayer:
Luke 18:13
But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’

What a contrast between that man and the sinner’s prayer! Oh the irony of how the sinner’s prayer now doesn’t even mention sin! This isn’t some factory where every church is required to meet a quota or they get fired. These are people’s lives we are messing with when we base salvation on the prayer. Don’t we see the danger? Don’t you think it’s dangerous to tell someone they’re a Christian based upon one emotional moment? Do you know how many people I saw pray the prayer growing up or have told me they prayed the prayer growing up only to find out decades later they were never truly saved? Let’s put it this way, I barely know of anyone who didn’t pray the prayer.

Clearly people pray a prayer at some point similar to the tax collector’s and I mean not to suggest that everyone who prayed the prayer is not saved. My intention is remind us that not everyone who prays the prayer is actually saved. Much like Jesus says that not everyone who calls Him Lord actually means it.

Praying a prayer you were manipulated into at age 4 does not save you. Being manipulated into being baptized at age 4 does not save you. I get that we all want children to be saved and we want the joy of knowing our kids and nieces and nephews are Christians but they’re still kids. They do a lot of stuff to make their parents happy.

“Tim, are you saying my kid is not a Christian?”
I have no idea but I am extremely uncomfortable saying any and every kid is a Christian because he or she prayed a prayer years before he or she began truly thinking for him or herself (pardon my P.C. language I think it’s as terribly not fluid as you do). Do you get what I’m saying? Was your faith your own when you were 6? Mine wasn’t. I didn’t get baptized until I was in high school but I prayed that prayer several times as a little kid. I had no personal cognition of my faith when I was a little kid. I wasn’t aware that I had offended a holy God and needed to repent of my sins and plead for forgiveness until I was much older. This logically leads to a discussion about when is an appropriate age to baptize people but I’ll save that for another time and I doubt it’s hard to deduce where I stand on that issue.

AW Tozer was asked how many people he thought got saved after one of his evangelistic sermons and his reply is as deeply profound as much of his writing, “I don’t know, ask me again in six months.”
Amen? Yes that gets an amen! Emotionally manipulative altar calls produce false converts in mass. If the false circumcision of Philippians 3 is anything today it is the prayer.

My charge is not to prevent people from praying to God for salvation or to discourage any of us from praying with people in regards to their standing with God. I am terrified and brokenhearted about how much stock we put into superficial and superstitious prayers. People’s eternal dwellings are at stake. We don’t just assume they’re on good terms with the God of the universe because they recited a prayer. We judge their salvation the way we judge our own: Do we love what God loves and hate what He hates? Do we love His word? Do we love being with the church? Are we full of joy? Are we broken over our sin? Do we seek forgiveness when we sin? Is our heart longing to see Jesus? Do we display the fruits of righteousness? Are we different than who we were one year ago? 2 years ago? 10 years ago?

“Tim, are you saying we should judge whether or not people are saved??? That’s awful!”
Yes I am indeed saying that. We HAVE to. It is necessary unless you never plan on witnessing to anyone. How can you witness to someone without coming to a determination that they need Christ? Hence, you’ve judge whether or not they are saved. And think about how dangerous it is to affirm the salvation of a non-believer! Seriously, think about it for a long time. It is far far far more dangerous to affirm the salvation of a non-believer than to doubt the salvation of a believer. We know we can’t lose our salvation so it’s not like me questioning the salvation of a friend is going to cause him to no longer be a Christian. It should cause him to question whether or not he’s in the faith.
Of course we need to be discerning in doing this. I don’t advocate or think it’s right to go around tapping people on the head and saying, “No, no, yes, no, no, yes, yes,” like it’s a game of Duck, Duck, Goose. There are people we all know well enough where we can’t in good conscience call them a Christian despite their claims to the contrary.

I am pleading with you to not manipulate people into salvation. Salvation belongs to the Lord. Present the Gospel to people. Bring them to church. Talk with them. Do not manipulate them. Do not reduce God’s sovereign act of salvation to some man-made hocus pocus superstition. We are the farmer sowing the seed in loyal obedience and trusting an infinitely wise and holy God to grow every last crop He intends to grow.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Christianity's Celebrity Conundrum

I can recall from the time I was a boy until somewhat recently being excited when I heard an athlete thank God after he played a good game. We can all list famous athletes that are professed Christians. When they really live out their faith it is very refreshing. Those type of people would fit into the category I call “Famous People Who are Christians.” I chose that word order carefully so as not to confuse it with “Christian People Who are Famous.” The latter are your celebrity preachers (basically any preacher with a multi-site campus that satellites in a pastor onto a screen) and also people well known strictly in Christian circles (Chris Tomlin, David Jeremiah, Charles Spurgeon).

I call the first group “Famous People Who are Christians” as opposed to the alternative because the first thing I knew about them was not that they were Christian but that they were an athlete, a singer, an actor, a newsman or a politician. That’s not their fault and it is not a knock on the maturity of their faith it is just the chronology of the introduction. Now that you've got a sense of the nomenclatures what then is the problem? What am I concerned about?
The problems with celebrity pastors have been well documented by lots of people on the internet with varying degrees of reliability. Carl Trueman has done great work dissecting the issue and I encourage you to read what he says. I have no real thoughts or opinions to contribute to that discussion. The problem I do wish to delve into is similar but has a different starting point.

With the celebrity pastor the man typically has incredible communication and motivation skills. He is a personality. He’s got stories and jokes and people want to hear him. He eventually becomes an egomaniac and things fall apart. The Christian celebrity, on the other hand, is promoted or elevated based on his skills in sports, talent in the arts or position in politics.
Time after time these Christian celebrities let us down. We continually hype up a football player as the next Apostle Paul only to see him get a DUI. We look to an all star NBA player thinking he will win countless souls to Christ until he gets a couple women pregnant. We look to the Disney stars and think how great it is that the children have good role models and then said star goes off the deep end. Perhaps we look to a politician to be the next great Christian leader until he cheats on his wife. How often must we be let down by these apparently extraordinary people before we learn our lesson?
America has an obsession with celebrity. The church is not immune to this deficiency. We desperately yearn for relevance. That’s why we keep elevating people, not based upon their biblical qualifications, but because of their cultural significance. See if any of these quotes sound familiar:
“That guy just said Jesus is his Savior. Sign him up to speak at our church!”
“That woman quoted a Bible verse. Let’s put ourselves under her teaching whether she’s gifted in that area or not.”
“That politician is for Christian values. Let’s invite him to our Christian campus to speak.”
“That movie mentions God in a relatively nice way. Let’s promote it at our church and claim it as a Christian film.”
Any of those things could be true and might be nice. I can think of exceptions to each of those. The norm, however, is that we end up looking like fools when they aren’t as advertised. There are two dangerous aspects of this problem and the first is that it is dangerous for the Christian celebrity whom we are elevating. Many of these people are immature believers. Let’s give the benefit of the doubt and say that they’re all immature believers and none are non-Christians. What were you like as an immature believer? Would you have resisted the temptations that come with being famous? Would you have been strong enough as a Christian man to not sleep with any woman you wanted? Would you, as a Christian woman, have been able to avoid compromising on God’s call for women to dress modestly if it meant your career in Hollywood would soon end?

Christian politicians? Is there any career that necessitates continual compromise on ethics more than politics? Why, dear friends, do we keep looking up to people we don’t even know to be leaders in Christianity? How foolish and selfish on our parts to put people into those situations. We hand the keys to the Christian bus to a kid who just got his temps and we keep acting surprised when he crashes!

This problem is also dangerous for us. It is not a stretch to believe that a majority of Christians would be thrilled or prefer such people to be keynote speakers at Christian events, to be leaders in a local church or THE example of Christian living. We wish these people to be elders not because they meet the qualifications but simply because of their place in society. That is the standard that secular, anti-God society uses and we are using it in the church. The Christian church’s obsession with being famous and being relevant is destructive. We keep looking to unqualified people to lead us into the promised land and when they fail we are left wondering what happened and where God was. The reality is that God is where He always is and His direction is where it has been for thousands of years, we just chose to ignore it and to choose leaders based upon the world’s standards instead of the qualifications clearly listed in the Bible.

Here’s as good of a hypothetical as I can come up with. Imagine a famous NFL QB or famous actress joins your church. He/she is new in town. No one knows him/her personally. He/she is an outspoken Christian though. Can’t you feel the urge to want to put him/her in a position of leadership and influence? Doesn't it just seem natural and obvious? We don’t even think about it. No one at the church knows this person! No one! Not a single person can vouch for their character! So our desires are based almost entirely on how good he is at throwing a football or how good she is at acting! Isn't that insane?
What kind of people does God use? Normal, ordinary people. Allllllllll throughout the Bible God uses average people. He doesn't use nor does He need famous people. He’s God! He can and will use whomever He wants. The disciples were ordinary men. They later became extraordinary but Jesus was the cause. The disciples weren't famous athletes, painters or government officials. They were regular guys.
Isn't our problem that we are regular guys? We don’t think or don’t want to accept that God uses ordinary people. We want to think that God looked down at David and because of what he had done, God chose him to be king. We want to look at Peter and John and say the same. But the reality is that God uses the weak to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise. We've got to look inside ourselves and really examine our motives for forcing people into positions they aren't ready for. Is it because we want them to do our work? Is it because we think it will make Christianity cool and we’re tired of being ridiculed? Is it because we’re just naive? We know it doesn't make sense, especially when appraised by Scripture, to do what we do. So why do we keep doing it?

Qualifications of Elders in Titus 15 For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, 6 namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. 7 For the [d]overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain,8 but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.

Look at those qualifications. Do you see anything extraordinary about them? Is there anything there that requires the man to be an incredible athlete? Handsome? Successful? Famous?

Think about how deeply it upset Paul that he was unable to meet with the Colossian church in the flesh. Look at the big deal John makes about knowing Jesus in the flesh in 1 John. We need our Christian heroes to be people we can touch and people who continually point us to Christ. These people need to reflect light back to its source.

Our heroes in the faith need to be people we have a real relationship with. They need to be men and women we know. What we admire about them has to be that they are Christians and not Christian athletes or Christian singers. I am as guilty and probably more guilty of this than anyone I know. I am pleading with myself to take this to heart.