Rejecting the magical cross

Cross necklaceThe cross is, of course, central to the Christian faith. That we should devote much thought to it, especially during this period of Lent, is only appropriate.

However, I’d like to take a few moments to challenge quite how we think about it.

One of the ways I believe we often get the cross wrong is to see it as the symbol of the satisfaction of God’s retributive justice upon an innocent victim in our place. I’ve written about this on a number of previous occasions, most recently here.

But there’s another way we routinely misunderstand and mistreat the cross, and it’s this: by treating it as a metaphysical reality to be believed in rather than the sign and the symbol of something much deeper.

Let me unpack that a bit.

If we see the cross as first and foremost the fulcrum of a legal transaction in which we exchange our sins for Jesus’ innocence, there’s a strong tendency for us to put our faith (in other words our belief or trust) in the event of the cross, which was over and done with some two thousand years ago. Of course, we might express our gratitude to Jesus, the one who suffered that event, and we might say we love him for it. But the fact remains that it’s a done deal. The work was done for us at Calvary; all we need do is accept our role in the transaction (by “repenting” and professing belief in Jesus) and hey presto, we have our golden ticket (the knowledge of forgiveness of sins and entrance to “eternal life”). Continue reading

Schizo Jesus

Warrior Jesus“The first time Jesus came it was as a servant; when he comes back it will be as King.”

I last heard the above words a few weeks ago. If you’ve been a Christian any length of time – particularly if you move in charismatic or Pentecostal circles – you’ve most likely heard them, or something like them, plenty of times before.

You might think this is a fairly innocuous statement. My purpose in this post is to show you that, far from being innocuous, this statement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus and his life and purpose.

Let’s back up a little and take a sympathetic viewpoint.

Q: When Jesus came to earth, did he not come as a helpless baby? And when faced with brutal torture and shameful death, did he not willingly submit?

A: Yes on both counts.

Q: As those who have pledged our allegiance to this Jesus, is not our hope that he will one day return to rule and reign over a kingdom in which pain, suffering, death and injustice will have no place?

A: Again, yes: I enthusiastically endorse this hope.

So, first time around we have Jesus as humble servant; second time around we have Jesus as conquering King. Where’s the problem? Continue reading

Book review: Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Brad Jersak

Her GatesToday I’m delighted to be reviewing Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem by Brad Jersak, published in 2009 by Wipf & Stock.

Hell is a subject which, in my experience at least, is not often openly spoken about in churches and among believers, but which nevertheless plays a vitally important role in the doctrinal apparatus of many Christians.

If I speak of a “hellfire and damnation” preacher, most people will immediately have a good idea of what I’m talking about and be able to form an associated mental picture. The thought of such a preacher might make many Christians squirm, but in the majority of cases, if those same Christians would stop and consider their most fundamental beliefs, they would have to admit that they and the hellfire preacher have much in common. The way they express those beliefs might differ drastically, but the basic message is the same: give your life to Jesus or burn in hell forever.

In fact, the belief in a hell of eternal, conscious torment for unbelievers is so deeply ingrained in the contemporary Christian psyche that to question its necessity is to run the risk of being seen as a doubter at best and a renegade or a heretic at worst. But is such a belief actually necessary to authentic Christian faith?

For those keen to explore the subject, there’s no shortage of books on hell, both old and more recent. Most either present and defend a clear pro- or anti-hell stance, while the occasional volume includes a range of differing views, usually set out by different scholars, and leaves the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut doesn’t really fall into either of those categories. Continue reading

That you would bear my cross

SONY DSCFrom time to time, for the sake of something a little different, I like to take a lyric from a popular worship song and critique it. (A couple of previous examples are here and here.)

The reason I do this is not because I’m a terrible cynic and a curmudgeon who likes to split hairs and find fault. It’s because, as one who was involved in leading worship for twenty-five plus years, I believe that the words we sing matter very greatly. And they matter not only as an expression of what we believe, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a powerful vehicle in forming what we believe. I’m not the first person to suggest that the songs we sing are often more formative for our theology than the sermons we listen to.

So, with that preamble out of the way, I’d like to spend a few moments considering the implications of two lines from the song This Is Amazing Grace by Phil Wickham. If you don’t know it, take a moment to listen as you watch the video below:

I’d like to hone in on two lines from the chorus, highlighted below:

This is amazing grace
This is unfailing love
That You would take my place
That You would bear my cross
You lay down Your life
That I would be set free
Oh, Jesus, I sing for
All that You’ve done for me

Now, the highlighted words and the ideas they convey are hardly unusual in contemporary Christianity. Indeed, many Christians would say that to speak of Jesus taking our place on the cross is to express the very heart of our faith. In that sense, I’m not really going to critique this song so much as I’m going to use it as a vehicle to ask, and attempt to answer, a crucial question: what do we mean when we say that Jesus took our place on the cross? Continue reading

Repost – Love: a meditation

Love heartThis post was first published on St. Valentine’s Day, 2014.

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Apparently it’s some kind of special day today, so I thought I’d do a special post to mark the occasion.

When John wrote his epistle and wanted to some God up in one word, there are many words he could have chosen:

God is just.
God is faithful.
God is patient.
God is all-powerful.
God is light.

All these words would have been more or less accurate as descriptions of God.

But instead, John chose the one word that he felt summed God up better than any other:

God is love.

So what? you might ask. What’s the big deal? Love is overrated. Love is all around.

You see, we often think of God’s love as an abstract kind of thing, as though God is somewhere up there happily engaged in an eternal love-fest with his alter egos in the Trinity.

God is love, we say to ourselves, that’s nice. Continue reading

The Bible is not enough

BibleAs regular readers will know, I’m someone who has been formed in the Pentecostal tradition, which tends to lean towards a fairly rigorous, black-and-white, not to say fundamentalist view of scripture.

Within this and many other traditions, there’s an unspoken assumption when it comes to reading and understanding the Bible: namely, that for any given passage of scripture, there is one correct interpretation, and it is our job as readers to find it. Whether the issue be appropriate moral standards, the nature of God or end times events, all we have to do is find a way to dig out the one intended meaning.

In this paradigm, the most spiritually revered are those who can most authoritatively proclaim the “truth” of scripture (with little concern for where that authoritative understanding came from, be it rigorous study, divine download… or pure imagination).

But the more I think about this approach, the more I realise that there’s a glaring, Everest-sized problem with it.

Allow me to sum this problem up as succinctly as I can: the Bible is not sufficiently clear or consistent for anyone to be able to categorically and authoritatively state beyond doubt what it means. Continue reading

Where will you look for Him?

HomelessThis all-powerful, all-knowing maker and sustainer of the universe,
Immortal, invisible, God only wise:
Where will you look for Him?

Will you look for Him in boardrooms and plush offices?
Any king worth the name must surely be found in palaces and mansions…?
Or perhaps in high-powered business meetings?

And in whose company will this God be found?
Surely you’ll find Him among executives, presidents, prime ministers and princes?
Or look among the leaders of megachurches and global ministries,
Or, at the very least, in leafy suburbs, among houses with two cars in the drive and two point four middle class children…
You’re sure to find Him there, aren’t you?

What? Don’t tell me you’ve drawn a blank! Then let me make a suggestion. Continue reading