My new favorite Podcast is the Unbelievable Podcast by Justin Brierley on the Premier Christian Radio in the UK. I was listening this morning to a dialogue with Abdu Murray, a Muslim, turned Christian, and Aliyah Saleem, a Muslim turned atheist. The discussion got me thinking about the idea of progressive revelation in both scriptures, the Bible and the Qur’an.
In Islam, the later sura exceed the earlier sura in importance. When a statement in a later sura contradicts a statement in an earlier sura, the doctrine of abrogation applies. The earlier statement is negated by the later statement. Thus, the statements found in the later sura carry the most weight.
A similar, but very different, idea arises in Christianity. Christians interpret the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus in the New Testament. In Christianity, however, statements in the Old Testament are not abrogated (negated); rather they are affirmed, explained and extended.
Jesus doesn’t give us the option of ignoring or negating the Old Testament. Perhaps, the most famous example of the way Jesus interpreted the Old Testament is found in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said,
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
Rather than abrogation, we get the idea of progressive revelation. Jesus affirms, builds on and extends the intent and purpose of the revelations revealed in the Old Testament. Even more significantly, Jesus says He is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
“Meaninglessness does not come from weariness with pain. Meaningless comes from weariness with pleasure…. No one is more fed up with life than one who has exhausted pleasure. Some of the loneliest people in the world are those who have lived indulgent lives and emotionally and physically drive themselves to impotence.”
This is a quotation from Ravi Zacharias in a talk he gave titled, the Problem of Pleasure. If you listen to Ravi Zacharias much, you will note that he returns to this theme often, and he often mentions Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish poet and playwright. He was a brilliant writer and thinker who was an outspoken atheist and lived a hedonistic lifestyle.
Wilde is described as “the supreme individualist”. The Picture of Dorian Gray, is described as a “novel of vice hidden beneath art” tinged with “self-conscious decadence”. The Importance of Being Earnest, commonly believed to be his best work written at the height of his career, is more subtle and nuanced, but continues the same theme, as do all of the works of Oscar Wilde. (See Wikipedia)
We know much of Wilde’s private life, ironically, from a much publicized court case that publicized his private life when Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry for libel. Queensberry was also an outspoken atheist. Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was the person who introduced Wilde to “the Victorian underground of gay prostitution”. Queensberry’s defense was to prove his statements true by hiring private investigators to uncover the “salacious details of Wilde’s private life”. The trial that Wilde initiated left him bankrupt as the defense proved the truth of Queenberry’s statements.
Wilde, the “colourful agent provocateur in Victorian society”, spared himself no pleasure and wasn’t shy about his lifestyle. Like Solomon, though, he retained a sort of wisdom borne of experience. Having been baptized as a child, he often used biblical imagery and characters in his writing, though his use was, perhaps, sacrilegious. During a two year prison sentence for homosexual actions, he requested the Bible in multiple, languages, Dante’s Divine Comedy and other works with Christian themes. When he was released from prison, the Catholic Church turned down his request to spend six months at a monastery, and Wilde wept at the news.
As I sit here thinking of these things, I am also thinking of the unfolding story of a friend, a very enthusiastic and committed believer in God. He is a lover of the stage, a former Shakespearean performer. In that sense, he shares something in common with the playwright, Wilde. My friend is in the ICU as I write, having suffered a series of strokes that could leave him incommunicative and paralyzed. Even in his desperate physical situation, he and his family have experienced the presence of God sustaining them in faith. They exhibit a transcendent joy and peace even in the middle of the difficulties they face.
We are naturally attracted to pleasure and pull back from pain, but sometimes the pleasures we seek cause us pain. We tend to think that pleasure is good and pain is bad, if not in a moral sense, then certainly in an experiential sense. God gives us the ability to experience pleasure and pain. In that sense, God gives us both pleasure and pain. Neither one is intrinsically good or bad. CS Lewis implies this when he says that God whispers to us in our pleasures, but He shouts to us in our pain.
In a previous blog post, I observed that Scripture reveals a progression from law to relationship to faith. In Habakkuk, the prophet said, “The righteous will live by his faith.” (Hab. 2:4) This statement in Habakkuk is the second half of a verse that contrasts “the proud one” whose soul “is not upright to the righteous one who lives by faith. The implication is that the righteousness is linked to faith and is contrasted to pride.
We see this theme continued in the New Testament:
“The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:17)
“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Galatians 3:11)
“[M]y righteous one shall live by faith” (Hebrews 10:37)
And the reason that salvation is by faith (in the grace of God) is so that no one can boast.
“For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:9)
When Jesus summarized all the law and prophets in just two statements (love God and love your neighbor) he whisked us past the academic details of the law to the simple heart and spirit of the law. (Luke 10:25-27) If we think this simplification of the law makes it any easier on us, however, we should think again. At the same time Jesus simplified the expression of the law, Jesus upped the ante on us when he said that, if we even lust in our hearts, we have committed adultery. If we have even gotten angry in our hearts at our brother, we may have committed the sin of murder. (See Mathew 5:21-48)
Jesus made the law simpler and more difficult to follow at the same time!
Maybe this is because our ability to follow the law (to maintain God’s standard of morality) isn’t the key point. In fact, the point is our inability, in ourselves, to live up to God’s standard! Until we realize that we can’t measure up, we don’t measure up, we are depending on ourselves and our own efforts to “be right with God”. But we never can. Whether it’s 613 laws or just two principles, we fall short.
Our focus shouldn’t be on the laws and other people. On this horizontal level, we compare ourselves to others, and we judge ourselves and others in comparison. This is where pride and self-righteousness dwell, and the focus is, ultimately, on ourselves. Rather our focus should be vertical, on God and our relationship to him.
I set stage for this blog with the question, What is Christian Salvation and Why Would Anyone Want It? If you haven’t read that blog first, you might want to take some time to read it. I set this piece up with my own story, but I am no different than anyone else who has encountered the God of the Bible and the salvation that He offers.
In this piece we will get into some detail on the meaning of salvation, sin that poses the problem for which salvation is the solution, and righteousness, which is, perhaps, more misunderstood than the other two.
To begin with, salvation means, generally, “preservation or deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss”; theologically, it means “deliverance from sin and its consequences” according to Google. Righteousness means, generally, “the quality of being morally right or justifiable” according to Google.
These definitions are simple and easy enough to understand generally, but they have very specific and nuanced meanings in context of faith that belie the richest and deepest of Christian truths.
One of the simplest and most fundamental principles of Christianity is that salvation is a free gift. It is nothing that we earn. God gives salvation to us freely.
A closely associated principle is that righteousness is nothing that we achieve. God attributes righteousness to us freely. Again, we don’t achieve righteousness; God considers us righteous when are rightly related to God.
These words, salvation and righteousness, are among the most basic of Christian principles. These words are used with a great deal of presumption that everyone knows what they mean, but that isn’t necessarily the case.
What is salvation? Why should we want to be saved? Saved from what?
Righteousness may be even more misunderstood. Are we talking about moral superiority? Self-righteousness? Holier than thou?
I will try to illuminate these very central ideas to the Christian faith in this blog. Few things are more central to Christianity than the idea of salvation and righteousness.
Today someone spoke about going “from selfishness to salvation”. I have never heard anyone put it that way before, but it’s as accurate a statement as any I have heard.
Jesus said, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) Loving and holding tightly to my own life, shutting God out, refusing to concede control to my Creator, desiring to go my own way is the life of a person without God. Marked by a desire to control my own destiny, to be captain of my own soul, so that I can say, at the end of the day, “I did it my way”, is a life lived without God.
The terrifying thing is that God will let us our own way. He didn’t prevent Adam and Eve from eating the forbidden fruit. They were tempted by the desire to “be like God”[a], championing their own lives, making their own choices and, ultimately, usurping God’s place of prominence in their lives.
The fruit they ate was “good”; it was delightful and even desirable.[b] The fruit, itself, wasn’t bad, but the choice to go their own ways, to assert their own wills over the will of God, was their downfall.
Without the choice of going our own way, we would, perhaps, live a seemingly idyllic life. We would forever be “perfect” little angels, but God obviously had something else in mind. God had to know the choice we would make.
That initial choice doomed us to the imperfection of our humanness, but it also opened the door to something else completely. It opened up the opportunity for us to enter into a relationship with God we could never have known in that “perfect”, idyllic, innocent state.
I listened recently to a talk given by Tim Keller who has a way of reducing “mysterious” ideas to plain English like few are able to do. In this talk, he tackled the Christian concept of being “born again”. People who walk in some Christian circles may take for granted what it means to be “born again” (or maybe not!), but anyone who grew up outside the evangelical influence may have very little idea what it means.
“Born again” is a buzz word to be sure. It is used ubiquitously to mean a certain “brand” of Christian, sometimes, or even a certain political persuasion, which is really a bastardization of the meaning of the phrase. The phrase has its roots in a particular passage of Scripture and is meant to convey the idea of a paradigm shift of sorts.
It is often assumed to mean a religious experience accompanied by emotions and religious fervor, but that really isn’t quite what the phrase originally meant, or even what it really means at its essence. Being born again might be accompanied by emotions and religious fervor, but not always. I think of CS Lewis, who I would consider a “born again Christian”, when I say that “being born again” isn’t always accompanied by high, religious emotions:
“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalene, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” (Surprised By Joy,ch. 14, p. 266).
Indeed, CS Lewis is not alone in finding the doorway to Christianity being rather more of a cross than a resurrection. Of course, the cross always precedes the resurrection.
Aside from the idea that being born again is primarily an emotional experience, people often think of it as signing onto a set of morally rigid religious principles. The words from CS Lewis might tend to support that idea, but that would be wrong as well. In fact, it really couldn’t be any further from the truth.