What about those who’ve never heard of Jesus? Part One

In the present-day perspective of religious pluralism and the widespread acceptance of ideological inclusivism, is it really desirable—or even possible—to talk about those who have never heard about Jesus?  For a variety of reasons, I believe that it is not only desirable and possible, but also vitally necessary to understanding the meaning and importance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But how?  How can the question concerning those who have never heard about Jesus be answered?  In many ways, the answer to this issue ultimately comes down to just a few basic things.  If we understand:

  • The nature of God,
  • The nature of ourselves and our sin, and
  • The nature of Christ’s identity and mission,

then an adequate answer can be given to the question.  But by using the word “adequate” here, does not necessarily mean “emotionally satisfying.”  While the answer shared will existentially satisfy some, it may well disturb and anger others.  And that, unfortunately, is sometimes unavoidable.  In a society which disdains certain central aspects of the Christian faith, some level of offense is an inevitable by-product of discussing the truth of its message.

Christ’s gospel sometimes does insult and offend some of our basic assumptions about life, truth, and religion.  When the apostle Paul noted that the gospel was, “a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to the Greeks,” he was well aware that some people would hate and misunderstand the message for what it was, no matter how reasonably, gently, or compellingly it was presented.

In this first part, we are going to approach an answer by looking at what the Bible says about this, and then later in parts two and three, we are going to discuss how we can answer individuals who are asking us the question when we are sharing Christ with them.

Romans chapter 1, beginning in verse 18 says that God gave all human beings a witness of Himself through what theologians have come to call “general revelation.”

The argument runs as follows: Even people who have never heard of Christ are without excuse before God for their rejection of Him because they have enough information to know there is a God, but they do not acknowledge Him as truly being God.  In fact, in the verses that follow, Paul continues to explain the ungodly results of this rejection, concluding in verse 32 that the things these people do are “worthy of death.”

It seems clear that at least for people practicing idolatry, sexual immorality, etc., the verdict is not promising.  But what about the average people of the world, those who have never done anything that bad or that evil?  Does God also condemn them?  If we continue reading in Romans 2, we see that for those people who have never heard of Jesus, God will judge them by their own standards.  Whenever they make a moral judgment, God considers that a moral standard that they must also keep themselves.

But herein lies the problem: who lives up to their own standards?  Who can honestly say, “I am not a hypocrite?”  And according to Romans 2:17ff, even the Jews who had the Old Testament Law and the Ten Commandments couldn’t and didn’t fulfill the righteous and holy demands of a perfect God.

Paul concludes his reflections on the state of humanity in Romans 3:10, when he states categorically that, “there is none righteous, not even one.”  Why?  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (verse 23).  What does this mean?  It means just this: God is holy and He demands holiness (perfection) from those who would be in His presence (1 Peter 1:16).  He simply doesn’t grade on a curve.  You either get a perfect score of 100% or you fail completely (cf., James 2:10).

And when you really think about it, who wants a God who “fudges” and lets basically anyone into heaven?  That kind of God isn’t worthy of worship.  That’s a God who is just like us!  And it would make heaven a place just like earth, which is not the kind of heaven I—or anyone else—would want to spend all eternity in.

All of this begins to answer the first question raised above.  When we get a clearer picture of who God really is, who we are, and what He requires of us, we begin to see a very different picture than the one we may have painted of God and ourselves before.  The God of the Bible is a God who is perfect and holy, who demands that kind of perfection from all who would be in His presence.

Consequently, we will see in part two why it is so centrally important for everyone on earth to have an opportunity to hear and respond to the person of Jesus Christ.

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The Reconciling Power of the Gospel

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Glancing around my theology class, I was struck by the mix of cultures present in the room.  Outside of the fact that I am from the USA, students hail from places like East Asia, India, Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar (Burma), Suriname, and Singapore.

There is more significance to this list than might be appreciated at first glance.

Not only do the USA and Japan have a contentious past, Asian nations also have a long and bitter history of conflict and war with each other.  During World War II, for example, the Japanese not only bombed pearl harbor, they conquered the Philippines, Korea, as well as much of China and Southeast Asia.  As they advanced, they brutally killed and imprisoned many of the inhabitants.  Those allowed to live were sometimes raped, beaten, and treated like slaves and animals.

I mention this not to shame the Japanese.  All sides committed great atrocities against one another.  And Americans should not forget the countless innocent civilians indiscriminately killed in Japan when atomic warheads were dropped on two of their major cities.  I only share these examples to illustrate how deep the hatred and animosities still run between these countries up until the present.  For many, the pain and anger are still very fresh and very personal.

I also mention this to show the transforming power of the gospel.  Here at our seminary, these students are all sitting together peacefully, worshiping God, loving each other, praying, learning, and sharing together as devoted brothers and sisters in Christ.  In view of human history, only God could orchestrate this kind of unlikely fellowship of saints.

This is the radically profound power of the gospel.  It takes all the wrongs and atrocities of the past, all the shame, anger, bitterness, unforgiveness, and searing loss, and brings it to the cross.  Here in Christ alone, the nations of the world find genuine healing and permanent reconciliation with God and one another.  It’s one more reason I am not ashamed of the gospel because it truly is the reconciling power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes, whether they were previously fast friends or even mortal enemies.

Why I Blog

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People blog for a wide variety of motivations.  And as a result, the blogosphere has taken on a dizzying array of purposes and products.  Some blog because they want to chronicle their lives and the lives of those around them.  Some blog to share insights and ideas about politics and the surrounding culture.  Some blog because they want to be heard.  Some blog because they want to be famous.  Some blog because they think they have something to say and so others may as well have the chance to hear it.  Still others blog because they have too much time on their hands and don’t know what else to do with their lives.  Blogging is a popular pastime and they might as well jump on the bandwagon and join the fray.

For most, it is probably a complex and varied combination of all these reasons and more.

But in thinking over the question, it strikes me, it might be a good idea to ask myself, “Why do I actually blog?”

Here’s a first pass at an answer:

First and foremost, I blog because I am a writer.  But I do not write to be published, to become famous, or even to have something to post on my blog.  I write because I have to, because it is a calling.  Something—or perhaps it’s better to say Someone—deep within compels me to write.

Whereas some use conversation, others use silent reflection, and still others use art and music to clarify their thoughts, most of the time, I use writing.  It helps me process and understand what I’m thinking and feeling about God, His word, His world, myself, and others.  It’s also an opportunity to play around with words.  While others like to play Pokemon Go©, with their friends, their guitar, or their voice, I like to play with words.  Believe it or not, it’s almost a form of entertainment, bringing genuine joy and a profound sense of satisfaction.

I also blog because it makes public what was once only private.  There is a hope that the things written would be used by God to offer help, encouragement, and insight for those who want and need it.  Ultimately, and above all else, I blog as an offering to God, that He might somehow be honored and glorified.

What’s the worst that can happen?

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There is, as I write, a bill in the California state legislature authored by openly gay legislator Ricardo Lara, that will require (among other things) that all Christian universities in California to allow same-sex married couples to not only attend, but also live in married student housing.  Failure to do so would open the schools to discrimination lawsuits and the loss of millions of dollars in public funds.  Many think this type of legislation is only the beginning of a tsunami of cultural changes coming to the American landscape in the next few years.

It’s honestly hard to say where this particular legislation will go from here—into law or into the trash.  If, however, the example and trajectory of Canada on these matters is any indication, it’s likely that at least some legislatively punitive measures will eventually be brought against Christian schools, organizations, churches, and even individuals who refuse to accept homosexuality as a morally commendable lifestyle.

Although we were never truly a Christian nation, from the perspective of history, Christianity in America has enjoyed unprecedented favor and cultural influence for significant portions of her history.  Perhaps that time has passed.  It’s hard to say for sure.  Regardless, it is likely American society will, for quite some time, continue to enjoy the Christian moral capital it has previously been infused with, but as history shows time and time again, God’s moral patience will not last forever.

I pray public legislative censure against Christianity for refusing to endorse homosexual behavior will never come to pass in America, but there are worse things that can happen to Christian schools, organizations, churches, and individuals than losing social acceptance and state and federal funds.  And there are even worse things that can happen than being shut down, incarcerated, and killed.

The worst thing that can happen for Christians is to forsake their Lord and compromise their calling just to retain some tattered vestige of public praise and cultural power.  Christianity’s power does not come from the accolades of societal approval and respect from those who don’t love God.  It’s a power that at its weakest is stronger than the strength of men, and it comes only from being faithful to Jesus Christ, no matter what the cost.  To know the supernatural power of His resurrection, we must be willing to suffer humiliation and shame.  We must be willing to die with Christ.  There is no other way.

What is Christian authenticity?

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There’s a lot of talk these days about authenticity.  The youth of this generation want authentic leaders and authentic relationships with one another.  I understand this.  No one wants to befriend a phony.  No one wants to follow a stuffed shirt.

But what does it mean to be “real,” and “authentic?”  This question cuts to the heart of the debate raging in mainstream America today about personal identity and gender concerns.  If being authentic means little more than following the deep desires of your inner being, then those with strong feelings and inclinations towards those of the same sex (for example) should freely pursue these inclinations in order to be true to their inner selves.  Failure to do so means you are inauthentic, a poser, a fake, and a fraud.

The problem with this perspective is that it fails to appreciate the sin nature that infects every aspect of our being.  To put it bluntly, whether we admit it or not, we are, apart from Christ, authentic sinners.  This is a humbling truth to accept and not easy for anyone looking to affirm and take pride in who they really are.  While we were not created to be sinners, sinners are what we became when Adam and Eve willingly turned their backs on God.  Ever since, we have been tainted, marred, confused, and deceived about who we really are and who we’re meant to become.

As sinners, apart from Jesus, to be “authentic” to oneself becomes an invitation—even an imperative—to embrace the sinful self and forsake the divine design for which we were created, namely, to obey and serve our Maker in humble gratitude.

There is, however, a far more reliable and enduring source that defines who we’re really meant to be.  We were created to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.  Our authentic selves are not found within us at all.  They are found in a right relationship with our Creator made known through Jesus Christ and empowered by His Holy Spirit.

God alone can tell us who we were meant to be, providing Jesus as the example and the explainer of authentic humanity.  He also gives us His Holy Spirit who supplies the guidance and transforming power so that we might become the kind of human beings God created us to be.

This provides a much clearer and more reliable picture of what an authenticity actually looks like.  The genuine person knows and experiences certain realities and possesses certain character traits that can only be supplied from outside the self.  God alone can be the source of authentic human life.

The authentic person, then, knows that all of creation exists and is sustained by a wise and loving God who made it and maintains it for His pleasure and glory.  They humbly acknowledge that moment by moment their very life and breath are a gift from Him, that they are undeservedly loved and forgiven by Him through Jesus Christ.  They spend time seeking to understand and praise and thank this amazing Creator God for who He is and what He has done, is doing, and will do.

The authentic person also understands that to lead is to follow—to serve, sacrifice, and give oneself away.  They know they can only love because God first loved them, that their joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and (ironically) self-control all come from being Spirit-led and Spirit-controlled.

They understand that true security and significance come not ultimately through personal achievement or acquiring increasing amounts of material wealth and recognition, but solely through a right relationship with God.

The Christian vision of authenticity is so radically strange and foreign to what seems normal and authentic to sinners, it can only seem unnatural and inauthentic to those who have no interest in honoring their Creator.  As Romans 1 points out, by refusing to glorify God, they suppress the truth and exchange authentic personhood for a lie.

Thankfully, Christians do not have to fall into the cultural trap of confusing sin with authenticity.  We are made to be someone far greater than natural selves.  We are called to pursue God and let Him conform us to His intended vision of who we were truly meant to be.  In Ephesians 4:24, Paul puts it this way: “Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

As divine image-bearers, to be authentic, then, is to be righteous and holy—to be like God.  But notice this: It is an arduous and active process and not easily attained.  It runs hard against the grain of our post-fall natural tendencies and sinful desires.  We must, with God’s help, relentlessly, energetically, and purposefully forsake and sublimate what comes naturally to our former selves.  We must embrace a radically new vision of who He calls us to be and strive with all the power He supplies to become the truly authentic person He created us to be.

In contemporary American life, this is a thoroughly counter-cultural stance.  Suggesting that some of our most deeply-seated personal desires are directly opposed to our own well-being as well as the greater good of society will not necessarily make us popular or respected.  In fact, it may even lead to being persecuted outcasts and vilified enemies of the state.  But as Jesus reminded us in Matthew 5:10-12, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.”

Authenticity, Immorality, and Homosexuality: How do I find my “true self”?

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On May 31st, Trey Pearson, the lead singer of the Christian band, “Everyday Sunday” wrote an open letter to his fans explaining that he was gay and was coming out of the closet.  Married for seven and a half years and the father of two children, this coming out included divorcing his wife.  He claims the vast majority of people, his ex-wife included, have been extremely supportive and encouraging.

I suspect if Trey had openly confessed to his fans he was divorcing his wife because he was having an affair with another woman, their response would have been quite different.

Many Americans find heterosexual unfaithfulness in marriage far more offensive than when a homosexual who has been married to someone of the opposite sex “comes out of the closet” and professes his or her “true sexual identity.”  When they leave their spouse behind for another partner of the same sex, they are considered “courageous” and “authentic.”  The heterosexual offender, in contrast, is deemed “immoral” and “unfaithful.”

This is due to a number of factors, but the link to the idea of “authenticity” stands in a direct-line relationship.  Being “authentic” and faithful to oneself is considered far more important than being covenantally and sacrificially faithful to another.  And what is truly “authentic” is based almost entirely on the internal longings and desires of the individual self.

That we might refer to sacred norms and traditions, that there is an externally designed human purpose and goal, are given little serious consideration, if not overtly ridiculed and mocked.  The idea that there is an ideal human nature that exists apart from—and often stands in evaluative judgment of—the choosing “I,” seems ridiculous and strange to the postmodern thinker who believes that no one and nothing outside of the self can tell a person who they truly are.

Only under this kind of radically emotional and personalist ideology of “authenticity” can someone be publicly praised for using homosexuality as an excuse to forsake a heterosexual marriage vow in order to have sexual relations with someone of the same sex.

But all of this can be set aside for a moment to address what I believe is a deeper danger and greater tragedy.  Because homosexual practice goes against God’s perfect design plan for human flourishing and personal as well as social well-being, it ultimately damages the commonwealth of society and hinders personal connection with a holy God, leading to all kinds of deleterious repercussions and predicaments.  It becomes yet another source of dissatisfaction and ungodliness, just one more form of refusal and lack of desire to be like God on His terms.  As in Genesis 3, we want to “be like God” but only selfishly and in the crudest and most demonic sense of that term.  Thus, homosexuality is not the problem but merely another symptom of the more fundamental problem of being alienated and disconnected with the one true and holy God.

In this sense, when I see the way homosexuals wrestle with their sexuality and inner desires, I see a mirror of myself.  I see my own struggles to be sexually pure, to understand my own true identity, to understand what it means to be a godly man and a male in a world of emotional immaturity, moral cowardice, and sexual confusion.  And if the goal is merely emotional authenticity, then I see the authentic sinner standing at the base of every man, woman, and child who will not yield to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

In short, homosexuality is symptomatic rather than paradigmatic.  It’s just one more illegitimate way (among many) to try and fulfill a normal desire (sexual pleasure) and need (procreation and relational intimacy) that is, at its root, no different than the alcoholic who tries to meet a normal desire (feeling good) and need (satisfaction of thirst) by drinking too much and too often.  The illegitimacy of the means to try and fulfill such desires and needs ironically results in the distortion and lack of fulfillment, thus making sense of the studies showing homosexuals—especially men—almost always have inordinately higher numbers of sexual partners than their heterosexual counterparts.  The need remains as intense as ever but the wrong way of meeting it only extends and exacerbates the problem of unfulfilled desire.

In the end, they seek but do not find.  They knock on doors where nothing and no one stands behind to open and answer.  Thus, one of the great tragedies of our age lies within the catastrophic canard that tells the homosexual that all that stands between him or her and authentic fulfillment is social acceptance and full freedom to seek satiation.  The terrible truth is they are being given an open and celebrated invitation into greater frustration and deeper bondage.  I genuinely grieve for homosexuals who look for fulfillment in all the wrong places by all the wrong means, because this is what sin loves to do—damage and destroy those who embrace and pursue it.

In a recent speech, Mars Hill Audio Journal founder Ken Myers puts the idea this way: “We are all creatures made in the image of a Triune God, called to fellowship with him, to love for one another, and for stewardship of our earthly home.  Our hearts are restless until we rest in him.  These are not religious opinions, but faithful descriptions of what is really the case.  We are in fact this sort of creature, and our shared public life should honor this sort of fact, not just those facts measurable through material means.”

The good news is you can discover your true self.  There is a source of authentic humanity, but it comes from outside the self and even outside the universe.  It also has a name: the God-man, Jesus Christ.  If you want to find out who you really are, only the One who made you can tell you, and only He can make you who you ought to be: a truly authentic and genuinely godly human being.

I will say more about this counter-cultural and counter-intuitive authenticity in my next post on Christian authenticity.