Newsletter #40

Us Flakey American Christians

It's hard to unscramble a pair of eggs. Christians are supposed to be "in the world but not of the world." These days Christians are surely in the world but unfortunately of the world as well. The salt has lost its savor. The Light has grown strangely dim--whereas the old hymn says, "The things of earth grow strangely dim in the Light of His wonderful face." Christians don't seem to live much differently than their pagan neighbors. Whatever we are supposed to believe seems to have lost 98% of its content.

If there were an easy way to untangle all this diluted Laodicean /American Christian living, any number of good pastors would have found the secret long ago. But the malaise affects the whole body.

"Alas, sinful nation, A people laden with iniquity, A brood of evildoers, children who are corrupters! They have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked to anger the Holy One of IsraelThe whole head is sick, and the whole heart faints. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but wounds and bruises and putrefying sores; They have not been closed or bound up, or soothed with ointmentUnless the LORD of hosts Had left to us a very small remnant, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been made like Gomorrah." (Isaiah 1:4-9)

"Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, And prudent in their own sight!" (Isaiah 5:20-21)

Alan Wolfe's new book The Transformation of American Religion (1) is an interesting read this fall. Prof. Wolfe presents us his diligent investigative research as a non-religious Jewish sociologist. He looks at religion in America from an outsider's point of view and he finds it pretty dull and unappealing everywhere.

Not long after I became a Christian in the Fall of 1962, the dear pastor who led me to the Lord Jesus asked my Jewish Christian friend Paula Fern and me to spend an hour a week with him working through the letter to the Romans. I'll never forget the deep impression that part of the Bible had on me then when I was a very new Christian.

Over the years I have read, studied, and taught Romans many times. If I ever go to jail without a Bible I'd like my friend Ken to go along with me--he memorized Romans some years ago. Teaching Romans this Fall I have been making note of some of the Biblical absolutes one finds there--basic facts of life and destiny.

God is immutable (unchanging). He does not adjust His standards to accommodate our needs or our wishes. The "high and lofty One who inhabits eternity" is a Just God. He cannot act unjustly. He is unable to overlook sin and can't let people go scott free by granting a general amnesty (the word is related to amnesia, "forgetfulness").

God is very angry with mankind. This may not seem like a God of love and compassion. However human evil evokes God's continuous and holy displeasure. Over time His wrath is being stored up for a day of His ultimate intervention in human affairs, and His "last" judgment of everyone. The due penalty for sin is separation from God forever. We are informed in Romans that God will judge all men fairly, according to their deeds, and according to truth. Greater sin will be punished more severely, and all of us are without excuse. No one is lost because of his ignorance of God but also, "no one seeks after God."

We can not look at our world and imagine by any stretch of the imagination that things are getting better and better everyday. The exact opposite is true. God is patient and longsuffering, therefore many people think all is well between them and their Maker--when in fact this is probably not the case.

God is keeping score. His angels keep perfect books. He has accurate accounts on every person on earth, and He must deal with every one of us. He is holy and we are not--the gulf between God and man is infinite. Romans say, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," but does not tell us how far short we are, but it's pretty clear the gulf is infinite. No one is half-way there, or ten, or one percent there. We can't earn credits, brownie points, or mileage credits in this life. What we think of as our good deeds don't even count with God.

The Law of Moses is about God's character. The Law tells us what He is like as a Person. God's standards require 100% obedience, not our "best-efforts" approach. The Law is not there to reward good behavior--it is there to indict all men in the highest of all Courts. "we know that whatever the Law says it speaks to those who are under the Law that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may be held accountable before God." James says, "Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in any point of it is guilt of all."

Our motives matter to God, and our secret thoughts, and our sins of omission. We are ungrateful creatures--while God is kind to all men. We routinely tread down the first and second commandments without a second thought.

"There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one." Their mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes"

Our lifestyles are supposed to be like that of Jesus. We ought to be a grateful, reverent, and gentle, self-giving people. We are supposed to depend upon God daily, as Jesus did. No wonder Jesus is so ignored and so hated. People don't like God as He really is--at all. If we are not able to deny Him altogether, we readily make him over into a more comfortable, accommodating deity--one we can get along with. He must be easy-going and fun to live with. "Our" God must be supportive of our plans for health, wealth, and prosperity. This is the American way--we need an all-American deity.

The wages of sin is still death--as it's always been. Death is separation from God, not nirvana, not extinction, certainly not eternal bliss. Optimistic and performance-oriented Americans seem to expect they'll be readily admitted into heaven (and rewarded, too) by a super-friendly ultra-tolerant God at the end of their lives. This expectation is obvious from the constant flow of humorous cartoons about the Pearly Gates. In his interviews of leading actors on Bravo television, James Lipton always asks the question, "If there is a heaven what would you like God to say to you when you get there?" Naturally every interviewee has something positive to say. God, our old Buddy, will be all to happy to welcome (most) all of us into paradise so we can live forever, doing exactly as we please.

The reality is that none of us sinners has any right at all to expect an entrance ticket into heaven. The admission requirements are just too high. When we die we ought to expect to show up in Court instead. There "the books will be opened." Actually when we die we will each stand before Jesus himself--the judgment of every man is in His hands.

 "...the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent HimMost assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth--those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation." (John 5:22-29).

The very good news is that God Himself has undertaken to provide a solution to this terrible dilemma of human evil. His work is that of reconciling His own holy and just nature with a hopelessly guilty and sinful and lost human race. The divine solution took the form of an eternal covenant between God the Father and God the Son made outside of time. At a certain point in history, the Son of God would step into our world and become one of us. He would grow to mature manhood yet remain free from sin. By His own choice--and by the choice of the Father--Jesus then became a substitutionary sacrifice for us.

"For when we were still without strength, at the proper time Christ died for the ungodly.."

"God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

The popular notion is that God readily forgives sins--and He does. Many Americans will even add that they have heard that "Christ died for our sins." That latter phrase has become a cliché unfortunately Few Christians stop to think for a moment what it really means. What it means is that the full and exact punishment for every sin ever committed has been taken by Jesus on the cross. The man who died on the cross was an innocent man made guilty, guilty and no longer innocent because every sin ever committed was placed upon Him. Jesus then became the object of all of Gods' anger and wrath against sin. He bore the full punishment that was due us. And Jesus carried all the sins of all mankind out of time and into eternity. (2, 3) "For God so loved the world" is the greatest possible demonstration of love one can possibly imagine.

The cross does more than obtain forgiveness for us by the death of an innocent substitute on our behalf. The death of Jesus has opened the flood gates of God's grace and mercy for everyone. Forgiveness and a whole new life is now available to us by faith in Jesus, it is a free gift. Yet we have to beg people to reach out and take this gift--and then many seem not to care at all about the price that was required to set us free. After "accepting Christ" the majority of professing Christians seem to go on about living as usual, none the worse and none the better for their "decision."

However, the cross, properly understood actually requires the death of the sinner as well as the Savior. God saves people by immersing us "into Christ," identifying us so intimately with his Son that when Jesus died, we died. We can then be saved by His life--His new resurrection life. We also must die to our old life style, to our personal plans and ambitions. This is what Jesus said, to save one's life one must first lose it in Him.

" you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:3-14)

In most contemporary preaching and Bible-class teaching there is very little mention about the holiness of God, next to nothing is said about his holy anger against our sin, nor about His justice. The burning wrath of God against man's sin is hardly ever mentioned. Divine wrath is a more common theme in the Bible than God's love. Neither is there any mention (in polite company) of the fate of many--which will be eternal separation from God. Yet the most intense warnings about this possible terrible end of one's life come to us from Jesus himself. The very central message of the Bible is the cross of Christ. But crosses have now been removed from most every public place in America except for military cemeteries.

"The cross is the symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of the human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said goodbye to his friends. He was not coming back. He was not going out to have his life redirected. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing. It slew all of the man completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. it struck swift and hard and when it had finished its work the man was no more. That evangelism which draws friendly parallels between the ways of God and the ways of man is false to the Bible and cruel to the soul of the hearers. The faith of Christ does not parallel the world. It intersects it. In coming to Christ we do not bring our life up on to a higher plane. We leave it at a cross. The grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die. That is the beginning of the gospel." (A. W. Tozer)

The "successful" big churches of our land have swept (lured?) many millions of people into their folds. How many of those "seekers" have actually entered into a relationship with the real God? If new Christians move on to maturity all will be well for them. But if they remain stuck in church believing in something less than the real God, they might be better off outside.

Finally, only Jesus can live a Christian life. Only what He does through us counts as the lasting deeds we will get credit for. All else gets burned up. Paradoxically it is by dying to self and giving Jesus permission to live through us, that we find the very fulfillment we are all looking for. This is the real world, all else will pass away.


1. Here is what Christianity Today says about Alan Wolfe's research: "Evangelicals might welcome a book like this. But unfortunately, this argument, designed to calm the Left, is disturbing for believers. Liberals should relax, Wolfe says, because the conservative Christians' rhetoric of biblical inerrancy and moral stringency is belied by their actual practice. Wolfe subtitled his book How We Actually Live our Faith, and he paints a picture of a privatized religion that lacks confidence and is eager to avoid offense.

This toothless evangelicalism, Wolfe says, is the result of market forces and peculiarly American cultural habits. "Christians and Jews ... have ignored doctrines, reinvented traditions, switched denominations, redefined morality, and translated their obligation to witness into a lifestyle."

Doctrinal ignorance is one feature of American religion that amazes Wolfe most. He cites familiar statistics: 58 percent of Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments, and just under half know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible. But he sees such egregious ignorance as a parallel to American politics, in which few voters bother to learn the details before they vote.

Likewise, Wolfe notes the way in which market forces have combined with the ethic of expressive individualism to secularize religion. Savvy pastors take what the unchurched want most and offer a religious path to their desires. After interviewing a prominent Cincinnati pastor, Wolfe concluded: "Religion is [for him] not the alternative to such modern ideals as individualism, but a more effective way to realize them." And a nationally known megachurch pastor from Houston told him, "I what is worldly and baptize it."

By making religion not only attractive but easy Wolfe says, we are experiencing "salvation inflation. The reference is to the well-known phenomenon of grade inflation, in which teachers give so many A's that top grades become meaningless. Likewise, as evangelical Christians expect less of people "to achieve salvation, the blessings of salvation are offered with fewer strings attached." Wolfe quotes another sociologist who writes that most megachurches provide "high intensity experiences of communality with relatively weak systems for insuring individual religious accountability--the assurance of right without the punishment of wrong."

Wolfe's analysis correlates amazingly well with observation: about the church in general made from different ends of the broad evangelical spectrumSomething must be done. But what must not be done is to return to a reactionary or imperialistic evangelicalism. Rather, we must nurture an evangelicalism that is truer to its robust heritage.

That heritage includes Bible study that moves beyond personal encouragement to learning about God and his demanding vision for both individuals and society. This means reading the whole Bible and reading it on its own terms--not through the lens of the psychology of self-esteem. That heritage includes an ethic of self-denial at the core the gospel: "If anyone would come after me, he most deny himself." None of our movement's heroes--from Martin Luther William Wilberforce--achieved what they did without sacrifice.

That heritage includes keeping salvation simple (John 3:1, Romans 10:10), but also keeping sanctification graciously rigorous. Growth in holiness is not an elective, but very much part of the core curriculum of the faith.

But success reduces religion to the lowest common denominator. And the pursuit of success often involves a Faustian bargain. Reading friendly critics like Wolfe will raise our consciousness. As Wolfe points out, "At least Faust knew the consequences of the pact he signed." (CT, October 2003)

2. From James M. Boice, Wrath Poured Out : "Where issalvation to be found? If God's wrath is deserved by us, proportionate to our sin, as certain as the calendar, just, and even partially disclosed in the natural unfolding of the effects of sin in our lives, how can it possibly be avoided--since we are sinners? The only place is in Christ, who bore the full measure of the wrath of God in our place. Do we doubt that God's wrath is real and threatening? If we do, we need only look at Jesus in the hours preceding his crucifixion. He was not like Socrates who calmly quaffed the hemlock that was to end his life. Jesus' soul was "troubled" (John 12:27), and he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking that the "cup" God had prepared for him might be taken away (Matt. 26:36-44). Jesus was not afraid of death. He had as much courage in that respect as Socrates. The reason Jesus trembled before death is that his death was not to be like the death of mere mortals. Jesus was not going to die for himself. He was going to die for others. He was going to take upon himself the full measure of the wrath of God that they deserved. He was to drink the cup of wrath to the very dregs in order that the justice of God might be satisfied and sinners might be spared. And so it was! The time came when Jesus was led away to be crucified. He was hung on the cross, midway between earth and heaven, a bridge between sinful man and a holy God. There he, who knew no sin, was made sin for us. There God's wrath was poured out.

For centuries the wrath that men and women had been storing up had been accumulating--like coins in the attic or water behind a great dam. Oh, here and there a little of the flood of God's judgment had sloshed out over the top as God reached the end of his patience in some small area, and a Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed or a Jerusalem was overthrown. But, for the most part, the wrath of God merely accumulated, growing higher and broader and deeper and increasingly more turbulent. Then Jesus died! When he died the dam was opened, and the great weight of the accumulated wrath of God was poured out upon him. He took God's wrath for us. He bore its impounded fury in our place. No wonder his righteous soul shrank back from the atonement. He had never committed a single sin. He was spotless and without blame. Yet because he was blameless and because he was God, he was able to stand in the breech for us and secure our salvation.

God demonstrated clearly that he had! In Jerusalem there was a temple the central feature of which was a room called the Most Holy Place. God was understood to dwell symbolically in that place. Before it hung a thick curtain, symbolizing the barrier that sin has raised between God in his holiness and ourselves in our sin. For anyone to penetrate beyond that barrier meant instant death, as occasionally happened, for the wrath of God must flame out against any sin that would intrude upon holiness. That curtain was torn in two when Jesus died. For centuries it had hung there, proclaiming that God was holy, that man was sinful, and that the way to God was therefore strictly barred. But now that Jesus had died for sin, taking the place of any who would trust him and receive the benefit of his sacrifice, the wrath of God was expended, the way was open, and there was nothing left but God's great love and kindness.

This is the gospel. It is what is open to you if you will approach God, not on the basis of your own good deeds or works, which can only condemn you, but on the basis of Christ's having borne the wrath of God in your place. That wrath is thundering down the chasm of history toward the day of final judgment, and one day it must break upon you unless you stand before God in Jesus Christ. Martin Luther began his spiritual pilgrimage by fearing God's wrath and then came to find peace in Christ. But he never forgot the reality of the final judgment, and he always warned his hearers to flee from it to Christ. He said in one place, "The Last Day is called the day of wrath and of mercy, the day of trouble and of peace, the day of destruction and of glory." Luther was right. It must be one or the other. If it is to be a day of mercy and peace for you, rather than a day of wrath and trouble, it must because you are trusting in Christ." (James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Baker Books 1991)

3. See Six Hours of Eternity on the Cross, and Arthur Custance's Journey out of Time,

My class notes on Romans, and (soon) MP3 audio tapes,

Sincerely, Lambert Dolphin.
October 8, 2003. Web Archive for these newsletters: