Thursday, June 26, 2014

A new gospel paradigm (II): spiritual life

Earlier this month, I took a crack at reframing the way we Christians should think about salvation.  We're often told that it's about making a personal decision or accepting Jesus into our heart.  But I'd argue that it's much more than that.  Salvation isn't rescuing someone who's flailing in the water, it's rescuing someone who's already dead.  That means a full work of resuscitation has to occur in order to bring that person back.

As I mentioned in the previous post, this act of giving life to a dead person is commonly referred to as "regeneration," which simply means that new life is generated in that individual.  Scripture exemplifies this most vividly through resurrection.  Other than Christ himself, we see many examples of resurrection in the Bible: Lazarus, Jairus' daughter, etc.  All these instances required an external power to restore life to each respective person.  The dead couldn't do anything.  They were...well, dead.

Regeneration is also sometimes referred to as spiritual rebirth (which, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with the Buddhist doctrine of rebirth).  Rebirth is most commonly expressed as being born-again.  If you hang around enough evangelical churches, you might come across this term.  Every now and then, you'll likely hear of someone who "became a born-again Christian."

In today's world, being "born-again" has a stronger connotation with being evangelical than it does with actual regeneration.  It's like adopting an identity-- you can put on your new "born-again Christian" hat once you've made the personal decision to accept Jesus into your heart.  Ultimately, it's about some rational faculty that we have to exercise in order to be saved.

But when we examine the doctrine of spiritual rebirth through biblical lens, we see a very different story.  Christ's famous dialogue with Nicodemus in John 3 gives us an indication as to what genuine spiritual rebirth is all about.  Nicodemus is obviously confused by the idea of being born again, bewildered by any possibility one can climb back into his mother's womb.

But look carefully at Christ's words in verse 6: "that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."  In other words, your physical reality came about through birth from your mother, the external agent of flesh.  But your spiritual reality comes about through birth from another external spiritual agent, the Holy Spirit.  Since you made no contribution to your physical birth, you also make no contribution to your spiritual rebirth.

This is something that most evangelicals today gloss over when they talk about being "born again."  When you're really born again, it means that the Holy Spirit has given new life to someone who was previously dead.  Only when someone is given new life will he or she exhibit the characteristics of saving and genuine faith.  

So when we confess with our tongues that Christ is Lord and place our faith and trust in Him alone for our salvation, that is only because the Holy Spirit has already quickened us unto life from our deadness. We cannot genuinely believe until we are regenerated.  It is only then that we do the things that spiritually enlivened people do: believe (Rom 10:9), repent (Mat 4:17), and do good works (Eph 2:10).  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Does the Asian-American Church need a reformed revival?

I don't like to write about my ethnic identity when it comes to matters of faith because, simply put, stuff like that often distracts from the real unadulterated gospel of Christ. That's why this blog isn't subtitled "an Asian perspective on faith" or something of that sort.  It's also why I'm skeptical when I hear terms like "empowerment" and "cultural identity" being thrown around in the church. There's only one identity I'm chiefly concerned about, and that's the one found in Jesus.  So when I mean "solus Christus," I mean solus Christus.

That said, I do carry around a particular sensitivity toward my fellow Asian believers, because I know many come to understand the gospel through culture-specific lens. As much as I wish we could all see past the color of our skin, the fact remains that race is a reality in our world, even within the church.  There's even a sense in which some cultures have inextricable links to certain theological systems.

Often in my fellowship (both virtual and in-person) with fellow reformed believers, I often find myself to be one of very few non-whites. This obviously doesn't come as a surprise.  The Reformation was spearheaded by white Europeans, the Puritans were white, and nearly every reformed denomination is predominantly white, both in presbytery and in congregation.  Yet with the exception of a few anomalous views propagating kinism, there's nothing about the reformed school, either in principle or doctrine, to suggest that it's a white man's religion. 

So why does the Asian American church seem so insulated from reformed theology?  Or does it?  While I've observed some New Calvinist leaders gaining popularity among young bible-believing Asian Americans, I've also seen emergent influences take root at the same time.  I can see why this makes sense.  Notions like 'cultural relevancy' and 'empowerment' are very real concepts that are shared between Asian American Christianity and the emergent movement.

What has been left in the wake of this strange postmodern blend is confusion over what reformed orthodoxy really means.  Certainly, some in the Asian American church have embraced a Calvinistic view of salvation.  But a comprehensive understanding of reformed theology beyond just soteriology seems to be much more of a rarity.  I would guess that the ruling theology within Asian American Christianity is just a confluence of multiple systems and views-- some good, some bad.  

But even as a confessional reformed Christian, I don't think confessionalism is the answer to the Asian American church's amorphousness.  The historic creeds and confessions already carry a lot of baggage to non-reformed eyes not because they're in error, but because they're often used in lieu of the Bible to mark orthodoxy.  But this just proves that we need a genuine return to scriptures alone to understand the gospel at its heart and its prescriptions for Christian living.

Because the gospel is universal in its narrative and application, that's where we must begin.  I don't think the Asian American church needs so much as a "reformed revival" as it does a gospel understanding of the scriptures independent of cultural relevancy or ethnic identity.  Once that happens, then a true grasp of what it means to be reformed will come.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A new gospel paradigm (I): spiritual death

For years, I understood the gospel and salvation in terms of personal belief and faith.  I think it would fair to say that this is the course that most evangelical churches have taken, in terms of both understanding salvation as a doctrine and as a message for evangelism.  To be sure, it would be unwise to discount the importance of genuinely expressing belief and faith in Christ, as it underscores the necessity of human responsibility in the fruit of salvation.

My understanding of the gospel radically changed, however, when I began thinking of it in the paradigm of spiritual life and conversely spiritual death.  We must necessarily view salvation in this context because it puts the reality of sin's stakes in our minds while still giving glory to God for His redemptive work.  Trivializing salvation to just a personal decision simply doesn't convey our positional standing before God formerly as sinners but now as new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

So when we consider the state of human nature, it would be an injustice to simply say that we have sinned and insulted God.  Far more accurate is a depiction of utter spiritual deadness-- the fact that all human beings are born into sin, spiritually dead through their federal head in Adam, and have no willful capability to seek or choose God.  Genesis 2, Ephesians 2, and Colossians 2 all allude to our death in the spirit and in our trespasses.  Just as physical death renders someone incapable of feeling, thinking, moving, etc., spiritual death also incapacitates ability for everything.

To only way to bring about life to a dead person is through resurrection, or something we call regeneration.  Simply put, it is the act of restoring life to the dead, an act which must be authored by an external agent, for the dead subject has absolutely no power to regenerate him or herself.  One of Scripture's greatest  illustrative examples of this is the resurrection of Lazarus.  Lazarus did not go about attempting to revive himself, nor did he ask Jesus to resurrect him.  Christ simply did it of His own accord, since Lazarus had no ability whatsoever to raise himself from the dead.

In the same way, spiritually dead people are utterly incapable of regenerating themselves.  It is an external act of the Holy Spirit that takes place independently of the dead subject's mental, rational, physical, or spiritual faculties.  Semi-Pelagian and Arminian theologians will argue that the Holy Spirit will prod someone's heart to believe, but that the individual must ultimately be the one to take the last step (e.g., think the 'open door' analogy).  You can almost liken this to the 70-30 dating rule, where the male goes in 70% for the kiss, but the female must accomplish the remaining 30%.

As long as we're talking about dead people here, it's important to remember that the dead cannot move, cannot think, and mostly certainly cannot kiss a wooer back.  Not thirty percent.  Not ten percent.  Not  one percent.  As a result, a wholly external act of regeneration is credited solely to the one doing the saving.  In the context of the salvation of Christ's gospel, we must give glory to God for completely authoring, initiating, and finishing salvation in each believer's life.

All the while, there are still implications for gospel evangelism.  Sinners cannot comprehend their spiritual standing  before God and, more importantly, their need for a Savior without first understanding their deadness in sin.  So when we preach Christ to the lost, it should never be about making a decision as if people can pick and choose whether they need Christ.  Instead, it must always be about placing God in His almighty holiness and realizing our utter deadness and spiritual incapacity.  Only then can people understand the true need for a Redeemer and Savior named Christ.

Why I believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ

[I posted this on my Facebook page over Easter and felt it would be fitting to re-post here.]

Easter is one those funny holidays when people are either posting about eggs and bunnies or something about Jesus rising from the dead.  I'm sure everyone has a "religious" friend who does the latter-- you've probably seen a Bible verse, a picture of an empty tomb, maybe a Jesus meme, or some other content, indirectly or directly, that's supposed to hearken to the fact that Easter is one of the most important days in Christendom.

If you're not a Christian, you probably scroll right past these kinds of posts because, for all intents and purposes, they're about someone who you believe has no bearing on your life whatsoever.  I mean, who cares what a 1st century Jew did nearly 2,000 years ago?  Your concern is making today's world a better place, because for all you know, this is all the life there is until you breath your last.

Over the years, I've posted a lot of random stuff that has more or less hinted that Christianity is important to me.  But I've never explained why I believe what I believe, and more importantly, why I believe it has bearing on every single person to ever live.  I think most people are vaguely aware that Christians believe in Jesus because he died for their sins.  But being able to elucidate the true meaning of Jesus' cruficixion beyond this elementary statement becomes the tricky part.  What does it really mean that Christ came to die for sinners?

To start, we need to think about God-- who he is, his attributes, character, etc. etc.  People like to think of him as the "man upstairs" or the "big cheese" or some higher being that provides comfort and care for those who believe in him.  Let's step back from this presupposition for a second and see what the Bible says about God.  We're told that God is holy (1 Peter 1:16).  Holiness is like a binary characteristic-- you're either holy or you're not.  Anything short of perfect holiness is not holy.

Holiness means that there isn't a morsel of evil, a speck of filth, or a trace of sin present.  If it coexists with something that's 0.000001% evil, then it ceases to become holy.  The justice of a holy being means that anything failing to conform to that standard needs to be wiped out stat.  So if God is perfectly holy, then it is logically impossible that he reside with anyone who comes up short, even if just a nanometer.

Enter human.  Chances are you've been taught that you're a morally good person.  If you answer in the affirmative, it's probably because there are a lot of sad wretches out there who are worse than you.  Compared to some other people, you do pretty well.  And that's true as long you keep using a humanometer to determine your moral worthiness.  If there's really is a heaven and hell, then your ability to stay afloat of the 50th percentile will grant you access to heaven.  The bottom fifthy percent?  Not so much.

But if there's really a heaven and hell, and a God who determines who goes to which, is he really going to use a humanometer for your eternal consignment?  Remember when I mentioned God's holy standard and how anything less than that needs to be blotted out?  Well, that's the measuring stick that God uses.  To put it bluntly, everyone doesn't do so hot when we use God's holy assessment.  Everyone falls short (Romans 3:23).

I don't need to point out what's going on out there for you to see how messed up the world is.  In fact, I want to avoid doing that, because then you start evaluating the really bad stuff in the world against the really good stuff.  The one thing I think Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger) got right was that humans are inherently selfish.  Sometimes, I'll do something for someone out of what I think is an altruistic motive, only to later realize how smug I was feeling about it afterward.  A long time ago, a prophet named Isaiah said even deeds that we think are good are just filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

You might think this is pretty unfair but when we're talking about an infinite and utterly holy God, then there's no excuse.  According to the Bible, you're pretty much worse than a pile of crap when compared to God.  In an age of humanism, this is the singlemost difficult pill for people to swallow, because we're conditioned to think that humans can be empowered to build a morally responsible society.  After all, who needs God when you've got good moral people?

The Christian worldview, on the other hand, holds that "good moral people" do not exist.  Yep.  It's true.  They may according to the standard of what humans judge to be right and wrong, but when measured up against the holiness of God, people don't even come close.  So if there really is a heaven and hell, and the only qualification for the former is perfect holiness, where do you think we're all headed by default?

If you've followed everything I've said up until this point (or not), this leads us to one point: there is a massive gulf between us and God.  Like massive.  So massive that no human could bridge the gap.  How do you reconcile perfect and infinite holiness to well, everything else?  You can't.  That's the bad news.  You, I, President Obama, Gandhi, Hitler, and everyone in between: we all hold a one-way ticket to hell.  According to God's standard, that's our just destination.

Here's the good news.  God didn't just say: "Screw it!  Damn everyone to hell!", which he could have very well done.  Instead, he did something really remarkable and inexplicable.  He bridged that massive gulf himself.  He made a plan that we call redemption: the reconciliation of human and God.  How he did it is even more remarkable-- he sent his son, Jesus Christ, into the world, ultimately to be executed not for any crime he had committed, but for every crime we had committed against God.

When Christians talk about Jesus hanging on the cross, it's not some simple sentimental expression of love.  He literally took our place.  Theologians refer to this as 'substitionary atonement'-- the belief that Christ substituted himself for the sinner on the cross and in so doing, made atonement not just for the sinner's sin, but for the very sinful nature inherent in all humans.  This exchange is foretold just prior to the crucifixion when Pilate asks the Jews who they want to crucify: Barabbas, a notorious criminal, or Jesus, who lived a perfect sinless life.

In our modern judicial system, we often cry foul when big crimes go unpunished while the law comes down hard on petty crimes.  But is there any greater injustice when a man, who is not only law-abiding but also sinless, gets executed while a hardened criminal gets off scot-free?  If that happened to anyone today, you'd probably be screaming "injustice!"  But that's exactly what happened to Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.

What's even more crazy about this story is that Christ's crucifixion wasn't unjust at all.  In fact, it was totally just.  Why?  Because he wasn't dying for himself.  He was dying for sinners.  He was accounting for their sinful lives and imputed his righteousness to those who would believe in him.  In that moment, he wasn't just saving, he was recreating new lives that would be fit to stand before God.

Remember when I said that the only qualification for heaven is perfect holiness?  Well, Jesus fulfilled that qualification for his people.  And here's the remarkable thing-- our sin wasn't just some debt he wiped away, he remade us as new creatures.  When we were born into this world, we were born in sin.  But when we're remade as new creatures, we're born in righteousness.  This is what Christians mean when we talk about being born again.  It's not some mythical fantasy-- there's actually significance behind it.

So what's up with the whole resurrection story then?  If Jesus died and he stayed dead, then Christians wouldn't have very much to celebrate.  But the Bible tells us that Jesus burst out of his grave just three days after he was crucified.  To this day, no archaeologist, secular or Christian, can tell you where the body of Jesus is buried.  Why?  Because he's not here.

So why does the resurrection matter?  It matters because it not only fulfills what the Bible promised earlier in the Old Testament, but it also proves what Jesus claimed all along-- that he was the Son of God.  And even more importantly, his resurrection points to our resurrection.  You might be wondering: "What resurrection?  We're not dead."  But we are.  The Bible tells us that we're spiritually dead people, and that only the power of God brings spiritual life to the dead (1 Corinthians 15:22).

That brings us back to the whole gulf thing.  For anyone to even meet the qualification of perfect holiness, God had to redeem and recreate a new people to fit that holy standard.  We call this grace-- he did it completely out of his own mercy and with no consideration of human merit.  Because if he did, we would all be screwed.  Instead, we point to Jesus in all his righteousness when we're before God in his judgement.

Ultimately, this brings me to my final point.  The Bible isn't some ancient religious text for the purpose of ethics and moralism.  It's an account of God's redemption plan and how he brings salvation to those who place their faith in him.  People like to prooftext and cherry-pick bits and pieces of the Bible, but that's not how it's supposed to be read.  It should always be read in the context of a perfect and holy God, sinful and unclean people, and how God redeems his people from that.

There are a lot of popular misconceptions about what Christianity is, and much of it has tarnished what the true gospel teaches.  You might have been turned off by instances of scandal among church leaders, or rampant hypocrisy within evangelicalism.  But I'd urge you to look to Jesus instead.  Not because he's some moral guru, but because he's the perfect and righteous redeemer for sinful people.

If you've always bought into some warped version of Christianity, I hope this post sheds some light on the true gospel.  But don't take my word for it.  Read the Bible yourself and see what God has to say about his redemption plan.  Come to Jesus in repentance and faith, and he won't turn you away (John 6:37).