Could I stop being a Christian?

cross_in_sunset_my2I have been thinking about why I am a Christian recently, and whether I might one day be persuaded or compelled to stop being one. There are lots of reasons that come together to give me confidence in the person of Jesus such that I identify myself as one of his followers. They include the evidence for the existence of God (as a personal, good, eternal creator etc see my thoughts here), the reliability of the Bible, the evidence for the resurrection and so on. I guess that might be enough, but there is a deeper root of conviction and certainty in my heart, and it’s this: “grace”. Not just the idea of grace, but its perfection, origin and embodiment in the person of Jesus Christ.

Grace is “giving someone something good that they do not deserve”. Some distinguish mercy from grace, defining it is as “not giving someone what they do deserve”, but for me, when I use the word grace, I usually include this too. Grace is person A blessing person B and showing them favour in a way that is not determined by person B’s actions. Rather, grace finds its origin and source in the one being gracious. Here is Packer’s classic expression of this:

“What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis, the fact that I know God, but the larger fact which underlies it — the fact that He knows me. I am graven on the palms of His hands. I am never out of His mind. All my knowledge of Him depends on His sustained initiative in knowing me. I know Him, because He first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me, and there is no moment when His eye is off me, or His attention distracted from me, and no moment therefore, when His care falters.

This is momentous knowledge. There is unspeakable comfort — the sort of comfort that energizes, be it said, not enervates — in knowing that God is constantly taking knowledge of me in love, and watching over me for my good. There is tremendous relief in knowing that His love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me. There is, certainly , great cause for humility in the thought that He sees all the twisted things about me that my fellow-men do not see (and am I glad!), and that He sees more corruption in me than that which I see in myself (which in all conscience, is enough).

There is, however, equally great incentive to worship and love God in the thought that, for some unfathomable reason, He wants me as His friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given His Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.”

– JI Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, 1973), pages 41-42.

Grace is anchored and has its source, its motivation, in the one being gracious. Their grace is grounded in them being “gracious”, not me being worthy of grace. Being worthy of grace is an oxymoron if ever there was one.

I can’t hope to get close to Packer’s eloquence with words, but I’ll try to give a short explanation of God’s grace. The gospel is the good news about Jesus. It is a gospel of grace. Though we have sinned (done evil), forfeiting God’s love and goodness and earning his wrath and rejection, God has freely given us his Son, Jesus. Jesus lived as we should have lived, died the death we deserved and is now risen and ruling at his Father’s side. Simply by trusting in him as our Lord and Saviour, we get his good life credited to us in exchange for our bad life. Our sin having been punished in Christ on the cross, and us being now in possession of Jesus’ life of obedience, we have an eternal, unhindered, unbreakable relationship with God as our Father – just like Jesus does. I was destined to a deserved hell of separation from God, the source of love and joy and life, yet I find myself, without there being any minuscule of merit in myself, as an adopted and dearly loved child of God. It’s simply stunning. Simply stunning.

If I, in any way, earn my way into some good situation, I might have cause to congratulate myself and even begin to revere and worship ‘yours truly’. But I find the thought of worshipping me, wearisome. My petty achievements, such as they are, do not particularly impress me. Nor could I see that they ever would. In fact, daily my deeds pile up in disappointment. But I have something far better. I have Jesus!

If the gospel of grace is a fabrication, an imagining, and Jesus is not its personal, knowable epicentre, then we live in a dull, shabby universe. Reality is a depressing disappointment. There is an idea, a possible glorious reality, that could have been but wasn’t, and we are left in the darkness to make the best of it. If there is some sort of other god in this sad, second-rate world then he, or she, or it, is also, to be frank, going to be a bit of a disappointment. How could one summon up the enthusiasm to worship such a god when all the time the idea of this other (all be it unrealised) one blinds us with his dazzling glory?

I can, I guess see, that if a person has not had such a life changing view of grace as I see in the gospel, that they could perhaps be content casting their eye about this world without knowing the God of the Bible. The God of Jesus Christ. They may well entertain and serve other gods and ideas, with deep commitment and sincerity. But for me, having caught a glimpse of his glory, I cannot entertain a lesser reality.

If you are going to live, live and give your life for the best conceivable reality. To do anything else is to live with a sense of “Oh well, that’s a shame”. Like going to your favourite restaurant and finding it shut for the night. I cannot do that. I will not do that. I want, and will give myself to, a God of infinite grace and goodness.

I guess this line of reasoning, if you can call it that, is akin to the Ontological argument. The grace of God revealed in the person of Jesus, his sacrificial death in our place, and our subsequent forgiveness and adoption through faith alone, seems so glorious that it must be true. Necessarily true. It is so perfect in every respect that to not exist would be a lone lack sticking out like a sore thumb. I know you could pick holes in that argument, but that’s the way it seems to me. Let the gospel be true and everything else a lie. I take my stand on the most glorious truth and judge all else by it. I am sure you would not pretend to me that you do not also stand upon a pile of presuppositions. Forgive me if I just happen to choose the grandest pile upon which to build my life and view the world.

This grace of God seems also to have about it something eternally sustaining. What’s the point of everlasting life, for it seems to me there must be such a thing, if it becomes an eternal tedium? I find it hard to describe God’s grace, but that’s not all down to my limited communication skills. Part of it is due to the fact that it’s so infinitely glorious. Take a million views and there will be a million more angles from which to appreciate it, a billion more perspectives to perceive it. The Bible itself is full of stories, and analogies, and metaphors, and poetry, and letters, and apocalyptic literature, all expressing various aspects of God’s grace. When we’ve had 10,000 years to appreciate and explore and enjoy the atonement, we will still need an infinite many more before we can even scratch the surface of it.

It’s not just that this grace benefits me so much, though it does more than I will ever know. That is not what captivates me most about it. It’s the very act of God in being gracious in such an astounding way, that captivates me. His grace to me is wonderfully beneficial, but since grace has its origin in the giver, it tells me less about me than it does about God. His grace draws me to gaze upon him and marvel at what it is in him that caused him to act in such a way towards me.

So if you ask me why I am a Christian, I might talk about various historical and philosophical arguments and I hope they would be helpful. But probe a bit deeper and I would begin to talk about the grace of God in the person of Jesus. This truth (I cannot call it anything else, for if this is false then all else is fiction), is everything to me. I have heard of something so wonderful, so glorious, that it has gripped my heart and my heart has gripped it in return in an unbreakable embrace.

Maybe I don’t know exactly how Genesis 1 is to be interpreted. Maybe I don’t know the best way of aligning the kings of Judah with the latest archaeological evidence. Maybe I don’t understand why there is so much seemingly unnecessary suffering in the world. But I’ll tell you what – nothing could persuade me now to give up the priceless treasure I have in Jesus. That would be like taking out my eyes in order to see better without them getting in the way.

 

 

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I love your presence (part 2)

I have tones of notes from my time at a recent healing conference with the guys from Bill Johnson’s church  but at this point I am just blogging the main things that have stuck in my heart.

The first was that I caught a desire for more of the presence of God as an experiential reality and have been enjoy it ever since. The second was grace. Not salvation grace as such (I have been blessed to be in a church for over 10 years that emphasizes grace in such a great way) but power grace. They didn’t use that term but I don’t know what else to call it (gifts of the Spirit is a good biblical term for it!). Interestingly, before I went, a few quotes from Reinhard Bonnke had stuck in my head. This man, who is seeing amazing miracles, says this:

Power! That is the essence of the gospel. A powerless gospel preacher is like an unwashed soap salesman. Singing ‘There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb,’ and then having to fast and pray for a month to get power does not add up. Appropriate the power of the Gospel by faith. It works. REINHARD BONNKE

There is a temptation to think we need to pray for hours, fast for days and speak in tongues continually in order to see the sick healed. That, says Bonnke, is not true and can even be undermining to the glory of the gospel. By faith we apply God’s power to situations. It’s so easy for a zealousness for God’s kingdom to stall if we rely on our own works to provide the power.

The two main speakers at the conference were Joaquin Evans and Josh Stevens and both seemed to effortlessly heal and get words of knowledge. They emphasized that it was God’s presence that brought healing, not their own efforts or merit. Time and time again they would say “God’s healing such and such a thing” and sure enough he was. If anyone prayed it was only for a few seconds and in a very relaxed way, and then many people discovered that they were healed. Simple as that. When they testified to being healed more people got healed simply by hearing the testimony.

Jesus does say “this type only comes out by prayer” but that seemed to be the exception rather than the rule, and in any case, he didn’t say “by hours of prayer“. If we pray for ages thinking God will be impressed, or motivated by our dedication we have moved into works based ministry.

Matt 6:7   “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (ESV)

This passage points away from ritual to relationship. Both Joaquin and Josh (just found Josh’s blog http://kingdomrevival.wordpress.com/ and another one but not sure whos http://everydayrevival.org/) said that their passion was for the presence of God and that by perusing it they had stumbled into miracles and healing and words of knowledge. They emphasized that prayer and time with God was not a duty but a delight for them. Obviously there is a place for discipline, but if you are asking “how long should I pray for?” you have missed the point of it by a mile. It’s like asking how much time do I have to spend with my children for them to grow up psychologically healthy. Their psychology is not the main issue, love and relationship is. I spend time with them because I love them and want to be with them for their own sake not primarily for some goal I want to achieve, all be it a good one. In any case the goal of producing healthy secure children is best fulfilled by loving them as an end in itself. Someone once said ‘putting first things first makes second things best’. If I love them just for some end goal it will probably backfire anyway. In the same way I want to love God for the sake of it. I want to delight in him and his love for me for the pure joy of it. I want to know and dwell in his presences because it’s the best place to be right now even if it never achieved anything in the future. Power is the overflow of prioritizing his presence.

One final thing before I re-read and type up my notes is that we went out on the streets to share God’s love with people. I plucked up courage to speak to a few people and learnt a lot in the process. I trust God will use what I did although it’s hard for me to see right now how! It was scary but as Josh kept saying “on the other side of your biggest fear is your greatest breakthrough”. That was all the encouragement I needed.