Conservative Christianity

The author of this manifesto started from a context different to mine but this need not have led to conclusions different to mine. He tells us of his ancestry and some very hard times his family experienced. He reminds us of historical attitudes and denominational tensions and divisions then, noting that labels and categories can bring dangers of stereotyping and caricatures he lists five categories he uses to illustrate his journey. These are
  • Conservative Christians
  • Conventional Christians
  • Uncertain Christians
  • Former Christians
  • Progressive Christians.
Borg writes that he has moved from Conventional Christianity to Progressive Christianity. It seems that my understanding of Christianity means I am more like his definition of Conservative Christianity so although I do not accept his definitions entirely what I have written concentrates on the first and last forms of Christianity in his list. To Borg this Conservative Christianity includes fundamentalist and conservative-evangelical Christians, some mainline Protestant and Catholic Christians. He says the foundations of this group includes
  • Belief in the absolute authority of the Bible (for Protestants)
  • Emphasis upon an afterlife, that how we live now, what we believe and how we behave matters because where we will spend eternity is at stake.
  • Sin is the central issue in our life with God, the obstacle of going to heaven.
  • Jesus died to pay for our sins so that we can be forgiven. Because he was the Son of God, he was without sin and thus could make the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
  • The way to eternal life is through believing in Jesus and his saving death.
  • Most also believe that Jesus and Christianity are the “only way”
  • Other beliefs such as the virgin birth, performed miracles, rose from the dead in physically bodily form
  • Jesus is coming again soon for the final judgement and thus it is important to be ready.

I will respond to these on this blog but will do as Borg does and start with two: Emphasis on the afterlife and Sin is the central issue in our life with God.

Emphasis on the afterlife

Borg illustrates from his experience as a conservative Lutheran in the US that the emphasis on the afterlife and living to ensure we get to heaven was basic to him, his family and, it would seem, a majority of other Christians. This emphasis means that how we live now, what we believe and how we behave matters because where we will spend eternity is at stake. For me, however, this thinking is not significant. Where I will spend eternity is simply not at stake at all. What is important is that I have entered into a relationship with God the Father through his son, Jesus.  Having thus become part of the Kingdom of Heaven my life is lived seeking to share the good news that the Kingdom of God is here until either my life ends or Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead at which time I am assured of my place in heaven for eternity. There is in this emphasis on the afterlife the underlying and common human thinking that somehow how we live will determine our eternal future. In other words, if we get it right in this life we will go to heaven, be good enough to get to heaven, do what’s necessary to earn a place in the afterlife. With a good bit of effort and a dose of luck our life and deeds will win God’s approval: it’s called “salvation by works”. At the time I became a Christian at the age of 21 it became clear to me that my new-found relationship with Jesus and the eternal life I now possessed was mine solely on the basis that Jesus had won it for me. In the plainest of terms it works like this (Ephesians 2:8-10)

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

 Out of his mercy God showed me grace and favoured me with the gift of faith in Jesus and it is this faith that saves me. There is no credit for me in this – it is a salvation I did not and could not earn. Once given this gift I then find God has things for me to do, a life to live, a way to go. This I do, not to earn heaven but to take part in fulfilling God’s purpose in giving Jesus to die on the cross for me. He gave me this new life; now it’s up to me to live it. This gift of eternal life, of my place in heaven, was given and sealed at the time I became a Christian. (Ephesians 2:4-7)

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

The change comes out of the mercy and grace of God and it is utterly transformational and of eternal significance. It makes sense that any and all my offenses against God, my sins, meant that I was too imperfect to be with or near the perfect and living God. The alternative to being with God, the source of life, is death so I was "dead in my trespasses". God has made me "alive together with Christ". God has taken me from death to life – and surely there cannot be a more significant change than that! I was raised from eternal separation from God, a separation caused by my rebellion, my shortcomings, my sin towards him, a separation with eternal duration and consequences. I was raised from death to eternal life and now am seen by God to be in my place seated in the heavenly places along with and in Christ Jesus. How sad it is when a Christian does not know or cannot grasp this breathtaking and wonderful truth, that eternal life is something yet to come but also is to be lived and enjoyed at every moment of our present life. We do not need an "emphasis on an afterlife" for which we are assured. I know, because the Bible teaches it here and am assured by the Holy Spirit, that the reality is that I now, already and continuously have eternal life; my place in heaven has already been won for me by Jesus. My ongoing experience in this life often makes this truth hard to see in the blur and fog of the life I live but that does not make it in any less true. There will be a time when it will be clearly seen by all and, in addition, it will be seen that this is no credit to me but the result of the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward me in Christ Jesus. To God be the glory!

Sin the central issue

There is truth in the statement, Sin is the central issue in our life with God, the obstacle of going to heaven but it is a matter which can be dealt with for each of us so far as it impacts on our relationship with God. Unfortunately our capacity to sin never ceases and sin is so prevalent amongst humans that it cannot be avoided while we continue to live with them. (See more here.) While salvation is a gift given to us when we do not deserve it our response on receiving this gift includes repentance, seeking forgiveness, being granted not only forgiveness but also cleansing and then a life lived denying sin its place in our lives. Christ’s death on the cross was what it took to deal with the damage sin has done to our relationship with God.

 1 Corinthians 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures

 1 John 4:10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

1 Timothy 4:15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.

There is no point in pretending that we have not sinned or that we do not sin or that it does not matter if we sin. The very point of Christ’s death on the cross was a response to the fact of our sin, God’s way of dealing with it and offering us a way past it. 1 John 1:8-10 has wonderful news:

 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

There is no point in deceiving ourselves into thinking we have not sin – that would be avoiding the truth. Indeed to claim we have not sinned is confronted by God himself who says we have and at the same time we are saying God is a liar – surely and clearly blasphemous and a sin in itself! But God’s graciousness comes when we are honest with ourselves and with God and we acknowledge our sin, repent of it and ask for forgiveness. Then, wonderfully, we are not simply granted forgiveness but are, in God’s view of us, cleansed from all unrighteousness. The picture Isaiah 61:10 gives us is beautiful:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

From now on God’s view of us is that we are covered with the robe of righteousness that only Christ could rightly wear. God sees us as being as clean, sinless, acceptable and welcome as Christ himself. The word is, justified. We find forgiveness not only hard to give but also hard to receive. Sometimes that is because it offends our pride to receive such a gift that we clearly do not deserve; we cannot allow God to lavish his grace upon us because we want to earn it. Sometimes we try to follow the dictum, “forgive and forget” which fails because we cannot forget and the reality and power of sin continues to haunt us. God does not “forgive and forget” – it’s nonsense to think God could forget anything. What he does is more powerful and is the example we should follow: “For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8:12) God forgives then determines not to remember our offenses again – the forgiveness is complete and lasts. Can we not do the same? As wonderful as it is that God accepts us so completely it is obvious to us that while God is prepared to forgive us, cleanse us and then not remember our sin again we are not perfect; sin still pervades our lives in so many ways. So how do we handle this? Our response to this wonder is described in Romans 6:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

We certainly cannot claim perfection or sinlessness but what we do have is that we are forgiven and clean in God's sight and the need to learn to live, with Holy Spirit help, as people for whom sin is incongruous in our lives.

Conclusion

The book ascribes characteristics to Conservative Evangelical Christians; most of them require comment but I have responded to two of them here:
  • Emphasis upon an afterlife, that how we live now, what we believe and how we behave matters because where we will spend eternity is at stake.
  • Sin is the central issue in our life with God, the obstacle of going to heaven.
But I would re-write them this way:
  • A Christian is born again from death to eternal life by the power of the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead; enlivened and enabled by that same Spirit the emphasis is on living that new life until, upon dying, they enter their full inheritance with Jesus of which they have been assured.
  • By the grace of God a Christian has been given the gift of faith in the effectiveness of Jesus death on the cross so that, believing in and following Jesus as Saviour and Lord, they daily find full forgiveness and cleansing and, all obstacles of going to heaven having been removed, regard themselves as dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

294 Modified: 21-04-2015
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