We’ve really been impacted very deeply by the last great reappraisal of our theology. The great Reformation – which we’re celebrating next year the 500 years of the Reformation. And the thing is we’re tuned to that, but the existential issues of those time are very different than the existential issues of today. And because we are not tuned to what has been given to us – we don’t see all the things that I think people are giving us that would lead them into an encounter with God.
Our maps, I believe, don’t fit the territories any longer. And this is true of our ecclesiology and so much of how we do things – but it is true also of the Gospel, in that, somehow we have a reduced anthropology as a result. We are not listening – we’re not understanding the human in his or her existence. And all the things that they represent to us, we call “existential issues” – we’ve reduced them down to a very distinctive understanding of “sinning before a holy God.”
Now, I want to be clear on this, I’m going to explain this stuff a little larger. But, I think that’s a reduction. It’s a reduction of our theology, and it’s a reduction of how we understand the human being. And we need to see them in a much bigger sense of who people are – and certainly a much bigger sense of what the Gospel is.
I’ve been reading a lot of William Blake lately. I like poetry. I love the phrase he uses, “the doors of perception.” So let me read this piece of poetry for you:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
And the image here that Blake is saying is that you’ve got to think of a cave or a cavern – and we’re getting further and further back into the cavern. And when you do go back into the cave and you look out from further and further back, what actually happens is that the entrance becomes smaller and smaller. And I believe that we have found ourselves at the back of the cavern and we’re looking through at the world through a very narrow lens – a narrow perspective to what’s going on around us. So we don’t see things as they really are. And he’s suggesting that if we move closer towards the entrance and begin to peer out of it – we begin to see things as they truly are – in all of its splendor and all the wonder and glory of God’s creation. And we’d see things with fresh eyes. Now a lot of this inspired the LSD stuff in the 70s, but nonetheless, I think this is a good perspective. We have narrowed ourselves down to a very, very singular understanding of what the Gospel is and how we see human beings in relationship to God. I think we need to expand out.
95% of Americans believe in God.
I don’t believe we live in the secular world – there is no such thing. Let me explain. “Secular” actually started with the French Revolution. It was an attempt to take the church – which was prior to that, the central organization, the privileged religious institution bonded with the state – to break that bond and put the church as one of the agencies, one of the religious agencies in society. That’s what it means to be a “secular” state. It doesn’t mean people don’t believe in God. 95% of Americans believe in God. It’s just not the Christian God.
In fact, if you look at America (and I look at is, as someone who lives here and loves America) Americans are haunted by God. I mean you listen to movies, you listen to the songs, your art forms – there’s a haunting right throughout this country. You can’t get away from the search. No human being can. Our best anthropology says we’re made with yearnings that only God can fulfill. And I think that we can trust that a secular state doesn’t mean “godless.” It just means it doesn’t believe in what the Church represents or that the Church is the only answer to these questions. But the quest is still on.
I think we need to see it for what it is. We’re not living in a godless world. It’s just not our world where we had a privileged status.
Here’s the problem, most of our formulations of the Gospel and the church were formulated in a time when the Church was in its privileged state. It was Christendom. Well, that’s not the case any longer. But I would suggest that we don’t assume that just because the people rejected the Church and the Church’s hegemony, then they have now rejected the Gospel. Actually, most people think that Jesus is pretty darn cool. They think that the issue of spirituality is really important. Most people do.
I get to Burning Man on occasion. Once a year hopefully. And you can look at it and say, “That’s a pagan thing.” Let me just say, it’s one of the most spiritual events you’ll ever go to. Is it necessarily Christian? No. But there’s a lot of Christian spirituality going down. And you can have a conversation there that you can’t have anyone else. People are really wide open in those places.
It’s not a secular world we’re living in, folks. Open your eyes and see that people are giving us keys to their heart and to what is important to them. They’re haunted. Their yearnings, their art forms, their forms of poetry – all that stuff will give you a clue to what people really think is important. Pay attention. They’re the keys that people are giving you and me.
As an advocate for the missional church and movement theology, one of the things we do at Forge is mission training and networking with agencies I work with. We train people to be missionaries in Western contexts. We teach them that they don’t know the answers to these two questions until you get there. You’ve got to go into the context, and you can’t presume you know the answer until you get there. And you ask two fundamental questions, but I’m only going to deal with one today: “What is Good News for this people group? What’s going to sound like ‘YES!’ to this people group?” In other words, find out what’s going to sound like Good News. And then what is “church” for this people group.
You don’t know the answers until you get there.
The guy who invented the stethoscope said this, “Listen, listen, listen to your patients. They’re telling you the answers.” Listen to your patients, they’re telling you the answers. We still use that sucker to diagnose medical conditions, even though it’s couple a hundred years old. It’s a listening tool. And I believe one of the things we need to do as Evangelicals is not so much be “answer people.” In a missionary environment, we need to listen to our patients. They’re telling us the answers.
I’ve mentioned that we’ve reduced our belief in the Gospel to a very narrow, and I believe, forensic understanding.
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood, so don’t hear what I’m not saying.
I believe in justification by faith, let me be clear about that. I believe I’m a sinner and that you are and that we need to be forgiven. Jesus has provided that for me – I’ll take atonement any way God wants to give it to me. I don’t debate that stuff – I know some people are worried about that. Now, I think that if God wants to do it that way, I’m fine with it – I need salvation, I’ll take it any way I can get it. So don’t hear me wrong yet.
But I do believe it’s a reduction.
If the only tool that we have got is a hammer and everything looks like a nail, then you treat everything like a nail, don’t you? If the only understanding of the Gospel that we’ve got is that we are sinners, that we’re guilty before a holy God – in other words, a forensic understanding of the gospel – then you will treat everything accordingly. And the problem with us is that with most Evangelicals, it’s the only tool we’ve got.
Now, this is a little bit about how we came to this understanding of justification by faith. Luther, who was a very, very spiritual man. I really like Luther he’s kind of a larger than life guy, but he was very spiritual. He was an Augustinian monk from the peasant class. Very bright man. Passionate. And as an Augustinian monk living in the medieval Europe. In medieval Europe everything reminds you…all the art forms, the church is very dominant…would remind you that you are here (gestures very small) and God is on the top of the highest cathedral (gestures very high). And you’ve got these layers and layers of mediating angels and saints and Mary and all this stuff until you get down here. And you get hell. It’s this hierarchical view of the universe. Everything reminded you that you’re in big trouble with this holy God, right? And as an Augustinian monk you have a very, very strict anthropology. Worm theology, if you will. This idea of the unworthiness of the human soul. (And I actually like Augustine, by the way. I think he is a very insightful man.)
Anyway, so here’s this really Lutheran Luther, as an Augustinian monk, and what he would do when he would think about a holy God is have what could be best translated as a panic attack. It’s like when he would think of Holy God, (panicked breathing, panic attack), he would have a panic attack. Now I’ve had one once before, I must have been very tired and I thought I was dying. Honestly, I thought I was. And I was a medic in the military at the time. Honestly, I thought I was dying. And I was with my wife and her sister and I thought – well I was embarrassed about it. It’s a funny thing, you know? I think I’m dead. I go to the back of the car and I thought by the time I got home I probably won’t be with them anymore that I’ll just sit in the corner and disappear. I went back home and I thought, “I should go to the hospital.” I’m a medic at the time, and I think, maybe I’m hyperventilating. And I’ve got this paper bag and I’m breathing in and out frantically. (By the way, if you have a panic attack, that’s what you do – you get a paper bag; you just have too much oxygen. So you need to get some carbon dioxide into you. So that’s just a clue.)
Anyway, I was alright; I’m still here today. But the thing is, that is what Luther would get when he thought about Holy God. Righteous man. He wanted to be right with God. And so he begins to search the Scriptures as a professor, and he finds justification by faith, given to us as a gift, to be appropriated by faith. And there, of course, is the Reformation. This is the idea that changes everything. In that context, everyone was living under the guilt, which of course the Church harvested at the time to build the cathedrals. So it was very much a different world.
We’re not living in that world now. So, if I asked the question, “How many people in New York City are having panic attacks today – when they think of Holy God?” 3 or 4, maybe 5? (And before you think I’m a heretic, yes I’ve squared this off with Tim Keller, who I’ve written with. So that just makes me nice and orthodox, right? Having a bit of Tim’s magic rubbing off on me? Right?)
So, they don’t live in that universe anymore. The problem is that no one feels that objective guilt before a holy God because that’s not the God they deal with. Do they think about God? Yes. Probably; in some way. Or I would say the better way of interpreting would be is, I think, idolatry. And I think Tim gets that right, too, in a book that deals with that issue. That’s the better way to interpret this.
Do people feel dominated by the things that they do? Does work take up everything? Is money everything? Is money becoming an enslaving idol? Yes. Are there things controlling my life, trying to give me meaning, but never delivering it? Yes. But they don’t “feel guilty” in the same way. Some people do. But not many. The problem is…if we come with our forensic understanding of the Gospel – now we approach NY City – well not everyone feels guilty. So we have to make them feel guilty before they can feel better. We have to then make them to feel like they are far from God. So we end up like the tongue-clicking Pharisees. “You’re bad people – then I can give you the Gospel.”
I want to release you from this in Jesus’ name. You do not play the Holy Spirit, you suck at it. Stop it. You are meant to be good news people. Good News people. You don’t have to play Holy Spirit. He’s much better at it than you are. He might start at another point. He might start at another point in a person’s journey. He’s more interested in forgiving them from their sins than you are. That’s what Jesus died for. One of the reasons anyway. You can trust Him to take theirs too. He will convict us of sin and righteousness. It is not your function as God’s Good News people. People who are the recipients of grace should offer grace. And tell the story truly. But don’t always, only start with the justification by faith narrative.
For more talks like Alan’s and more information on Amplify, go to: http://www.amplifyconference.tv