Category Archives: Salvation

The 9.5 Theses for a (Radical) Restoration of the Church

nbcM9a9TyrfWdcpD9mEKqirFToday is a significant day in Christian history.

On October 31, 1517—500 years ago—a German monk sounded a clarion call to reform the abuses of the medieval Church he loved. Martin Luther purposely chose All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saint’s Day (a revered day in his Roman Catholic tradition) to hammer 95 thesis statements into the wood of a Wittenberg church door. Luther’s act inspired the Protestant Reformation and ignited countless other movements—from the Great Awakening to the Jesus Movement—in the next five centuries.

I am personally a product of a nineteenth century “restoration movement” (Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone) who sought to restore the Church to ancient principles and practices. I have a deep respect and admiration for my ecclesiastical forefathers who worked tirelessly to restore biblical Christianity. Unfortunately, even this great fellowship of churches eventually adopted secular models over sacred expression, whether in church leadership or worship service or preaching style.

In other words, the “Restoration Movement” didn’t restore the Church, at least not fully. Rather, and to be brutally honest, it became a “nondenominational” denomination in its own right. And today this once dynamic movement has stiffened into a monument in many places. Too many of my dear brothers and sisters prefer to divide over non-essentials, battle over unnecessary causes and alienate over pet interpretations.

So today, in honor of Martin Luther, I pick up my own hammer and offer more than a reformation, renewal or even a reimagination. What we desperately hunger for is a true and complete biblical restoration of the Church.

And I think this (RADICAL) RESTORATION is easily captured in 9.5 statements:

THESIS ONE: The Church of Jesus Christ is Essentially One. We are not the only Christians but we must seek to be Christians only. When the Church operates in the unity that Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23), we are an unstoppable, unbelievable and undeniable Force for good and God.

THESIS TWO: The Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Church is not a “plan B” or some ecclesiastical or eschatological after thought, as many preach and teach today. The Church is God’s Best Idea (along with a Messiah). It is the Kingdom predicted by Daniel (Daniel 2:44-45), revealed by Jesus (Mark 9:1, Luke 17:20-21) and promoted by the apostolic Church (Acts 8:12; 19:8; Colossians 4:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 12:10-11). It is a Kingdom of Salt that seasons, a Light that reveals, a Joy that pleases, a Grace that releases, a Power that energizes and a Hope that inspires.

THESIS THREE: The Church is Bigger than it’s Monikers. There is no “one true” denomination and no particular human expression of “church” that is better than another. At best we all see things dimly, in glimpses and partially (1 Corinthians 13: 12). In Heaven there will be no Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Amish, Seventh-Day Adventists, Quakers, Charismatics, Reformed, Evangelical, Fundamental, Progressive, Conservative, Liberal or “non-denominational.” In Heaven, as it was in the beginning of the Church, there will only be one label for all: Christian (Acts 11:26).

THESIS FOUR: The Church was created for Radical Community. The Church is about circles, not squares; community not cliques; interaction not isolation. In Christ we all have a place at the table of Communion in the Eucharist that binds all Christians together. The Church is described as a Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and Bride (Revelation 19:7; 21:2). We are a creative, connective and collaborative Family (Galatians 6:10). Consequently, we lead with forgiveness (2 Corinthians 2:10), love with purpose (1 Corinthians 16:14) and learn in community (Acts 2:42-47). Our gatherings must be immersed in interaction. No one should visit a Christian gathering without being tattooed by a relationship.

THESIS FIVE: The Church is guided by Matters of Faith not Opinion, Interpretation or Tradition. The Apostle Paul has given us the only creed the Church of Jesus Christ needs (Ephesians 4:4-5): we are one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. Everything else is interpretation and opinion, including end-time positions, views on God’s sovereignty, spiritual gifts, musical style, day of worship, organizational values, leadership roles and any other divisive human tradition. It’s fully time the Church ceased dividing over matters of opinion and focus fully on matters of faith. We need to simply agree with a statement attributed to Augustine: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”

THESIS SIX: The Church is a Body not a Building. For the past seventeen centuries the Church has confined itself within basilicas and cathedrals, halls and chapels, sanctuaries and auditoriums. The vocabulary of the modern church now erroneously reflects “time and space.” Many Christians will say they “go to church,” but this contradicts, even betrays, the inherent power and purpose of authentic ekklesia. In reality, Christians are THE Church. As the Body of Christ, we are a Divine Organism not a human organization.  We are faces not a facility.  When the church devolves into a business, school or any other cultural institution, as it has clearly done in recent years, it creates handicap and dysfunction. It’s why the early church operated from homes not a “temple” or a “house of worship” (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15). God doesn’t live in our building (Acts 7:48-49), but within our hearts (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Consequently, the building should never be labeled a “house of God” or “temple” and neither is it a facility Christians attend.

THESIS SEVEN: The Church is composed of baptized believers only. In our baptism we are “born again” into Christ’s Kingdom (John 3:5). Baptism is our “Red Sea” experience (1 Corinthians 10:1-2), our Divine garment (Galatians 3:27), our spiritual cleansing (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5) and salvation (1 Peter 3:21). And while visitors, guests, seekers and other interested persons are always welcome to journey in our Divine story, all those who follow Christ must identify fully with His death, burial and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:3-4). It is a Christian’s mark–a circumcism of the heart (Colossians 2:11-15). This is especially critical and necessary before anyone is allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper, as Communion or Eucharist is not something for outsiders, the ignorant or unrepentant (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:27-29).

THESIS EIGHT: The Church gathers for discipleship, fellowship and worship. The ancient and Original DNA for why the Church gathers is found in Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Essentially, we gather to learn the ancient teachings of Jesus and the apostles, to experience connection and community, to participate in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist and to pray. It’s clear from other New Testament passages that these gatherings included congregational singing (Ephesians 5:19), testimonies (1 Corinthians 14:26), corporate prayer (Acts 4:24-31; 12:12) and even meals in these home fellowships (1 Corinthians 11:20-21). It also infers each “gathering” was small, from a few to perhaps a couple dozen believers. Consequently, these micro-congregations were discipleship-driven, fellowship-based and worship-focused.

THESIS NINE: The Church is led by “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” Apostles are those commissioned and sent on a mission (i.e., missionaries). Prophets are those who lead the church forward through prophetic message and/or leadership. Evangelists are those who share the “good news” (gospel) of Jesus. Pastors are those designated to oversee and shepherd a group of believers (a.k.a. elders, overseers). Teachers are those called to instruct and equip. Spread throughout the Body of Christ are lay leaders or ministers (males and females) who administrate, serve, repair, maintain and direct specific acts of ministry, a.k.a. deacons or deaconesses (Acts 6:1-6; Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13).

THESIS NINE POINT FIVE: The Church was originally commissioned as a decentralized Body of believers. The centralization of the Church, nearly four hundred years after it’s Pentecostal launching, was never God’s desire (who initially had twelve tribes led by multiple judges, priests and prophets) or Jesus’ model (who discipled twelve men rather than one). The Original Expression of church leadership was clearly decentralized through multiple apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or elders, teachers and ministers. Everyone in a church enjoyed opportunity, influence, power and control (1 Corinthians 14:26). There were no reverends, vicars, rectors, parsons, priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, lead pastors, senior ministers, executive ministers, associate pastors or any other leadership label that centralized power to a few individuals. Rather there were only general responsibilities to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all [emphasis mine] reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).

In conclusion, I am not naïve in the knowledge that some or all of these statements will provoke controversy, argument or even division, for no great reformation, revolution or restoration was created without conflict, criticism and complaint. Nevertheless, I can no longer be silent on a clear and simple reading of Scripture, the long testimony of the historical Church and a leading by God to invite all those who love the Church into a conversation on where we’re at and where the Church is headed.  In fact, I would ask that you read the Scriptures linked to each point, please.

If I have erred or unintentionally misrepresented myself, the Church or my Christ, I humbly seek correction. I will never claim infallibility nor boast in my positions. I simply and humbly lay them before each man and woman to consider.

Nevertheless, I will desire, until my dying breath, to initiate a UNITY of the Church of Jesus Christ on planet earth and promote a committed and purposeful invitation to simply be Christians. We do not need denominational labels, human creeds, mission statements, auditoriums, chapels, cathedrals, pews, stained glass, stages, lighting, sound, fog machines, PowerPoint, Apple products, videos, performances, hip sermons, coffee bars, offices, bulletins, websites, special programming or any other human invention. They are tools, but they are not necessary tools.  Nor can we allow the traditions of man to supersede clear biblical teaching.  If the Scriptures say to do it, just do it.

Ultimately, we need only three things, as Paul so eloquently revealed to his Corinthian readers: FAITH. HOPE. LOVE. Faith is our confidence in what was and now is. Hope is our fuel for what will be. And Love is the bond to everything else. It’s why Paul identified LOVE as the GREATEST of the three. For without Love, our Faith is reduced to dogma, tradition and isolation. And without Love, Hope can become abstract, fuzzy and blinding. Ultimately, Love is the “greatest” because it’s the glue that binds Faith and Hope together.

So whether you agree or not with my 9.5 Theses is irrelevant to me.

I will still LOVE all people fully. I will remain FAITHful continually. And I will HOPE incessantly.

Here I stand, I truly can do no other.

Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part Two): Baptisms By Convenience

NOTE:  Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable.  But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought.  In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.

Baptism1-600x340

So you finally realize it’s time to commit to Christ.  You decide you need to be baptized into Jesus.  Great.  But when?  And where?  By whom?  It’s not as easy as you think.

After all, in today’s evangelical churchianity, baptism is largely by convenience. And that’s an inconvenient problem.

In many churches, particularly of the evangelical and non-denominational stripe, baptism happens by the clock.  Sunday morning, afternoon or night.  Sometimes on Wednesday night.  Baptisms are scheduled like church dinners, special events and holiday traditions.  In some churches you have to wait months or weeks to be baptized.  In nearly all, you’ll be delayed days (unless you experience a convenient Sunday morning conversion).  Easter Sunday is a popular day for baptisms.  Actually, any Sunday seems good.  Most people are baptized Sunday morning.

The problem? Baptism, as revealed in the New Testament, is hardly a scheduled event.  In fact, this sacred and ancient ritual happened at rather inconvenient times or unlikely places.  The book of Acts reveals a baptism occurred immediately upon a person’s profession of faith in Christ. Nobody waited until the next baptism night, annual church picnic or even Sunday morning.  Three thousand people were baptized on Pentecost immediately following Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:37-41). The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized immediately upon understanding Philip’s gospel teaching (Acts 8:36-38). Saul/Paul was baptized immediately upon being healed (Acts 9:18). Cornelius’ household was baptized immediately under orders by Peter (Acts 10:47-48).

In fact, there is NO conversion in the New Testament (post-Jesus ascension) where someone accepted the Message, believed in Jesus and followed Him without immediate baptism. Why? I believe it’s because of the incredible life-changing promises Scripture connects to baptism (being clothed in Christ, indwelling Holy Spirit, resurrection to eternal life from death and sinbecoming a part of the Body of Christ, spiritual cleansing of sin and salvation).  None of these promises were worth delaying.  Like Larry the Cable Guy says, “Git’er done!

And let’s be honest, baptism in many churches today is tragically more about the pastor or padding the church membership roll.  Sunday morning works great because the preacher has a captive audience and it’s, well, convenient.  Annual baptisms are swimming successes because a lot of people are getting baptized at once and, well, again it’s convenient.  Baptisms fill membership rolls and gives everyone (especially church leaders) a warm fuzzy. The problem is baptism isn’t for the baptizer/s, but for the person being baptized.  Consequently, baptism should never be convenient.  People come to faith at odd times and in strange places.   In Acts, individuals are coming to faith alongside roadways and by riverbanks, in prisons and in homes.  They’re getting baptized at all hours of the day, from morning to midnight. Maybe that’s why baptism was rarely a public act.  If a crowd was assembled, cool, but most conversions (as recorded in Acts and even today) happen Monday through Saturday.  They’re private matters.

The 20th century church not only made baptism convenient but “comfortable.”  Most baptisms nowadays happen indoors using warm water, with towels, thick robes, heated changing rooms and other creature comforts. Sure, churches in tropical regions sometimes employ ocean baptisms (when the weather cooperates), and many churches purposely schedule summer baptisms in order to use local rivers and lakes.  But I’ve heard plenty of old-timers talk about outside baptisms in the dead of winter.  Can you imagine chopping a hole in the ice to access the stream?  And a congregation braving the elements to celebrate a new convert’s baptism?  Nobody considered waiting for the spring thaw because baptism wasn’t something you waited to do.  Maybe that’s why churches today (who take baptism more seriously) find the inside heated mini-pool a convenient, comfortable amenity.

In the Didache (“Teaching of the Twelve”), one of the earliest (late first-century) Christian documents on church practices and a work some church fathers argued should be in the New Testament canon, the following statement about baptism appears (chapter 7): And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm. But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.

Evidently the preferred baptismal plan was cold “living” or moving water (stream, river, ocean, lake).  But any water worked in a pinch.  Just git’er done. Now.

Of course the final problem is who will do the honor?

Church tradition delegates baptismal duties to priests, pastors and preachers. Why?  I think because it’s convenient.  It’s easier to control.  A sign of success. And it’s tradition. In many churches, especially of the larger type, new converts desire to be baptized by the pastor (often because it’s one of the few times to meet a significant pastor personally).  It’s also a badge of honor. It’s cool to say “so-and-so-muckety-muck baptized me.” The Corinthians had the same gloating issue.  Ironically, at least for Paul, it seems he did little baptizing (1 Corinthians 1:14-17).  Not because he couldn’t or shouldn’t, but rather because he understood his purpose was to preach not baptize.  After all, anybody could baptize.  You didn’t need a Bible college degree, ordination certificate, special garments or ecclesiastical title to baptize another person.  And you still don’t.

In summary, baptism by convenience (or when convenient) is not a biblical mandate.  The Scriptures are very clear.  Once a person professes belief in Jesus Christ they need to be immediately baptized.  No waiting. No delay. No problem.  And baptisms can happen anywhere at anytime.  Thursday midnight jacuzzi.  Saturday morning YMCA pool.  Wednesday afternoon riverbank.  Tuesday night lake shore.  Friday noon bathtub.  And, yes, Sunday morning church baptistery.  Finally, any believer can baptize a new convert.  In fact, I encourage parents to baptize their children, friends to baptize friends, and teachers to baptize students.  Spread the baptismal love around!

Baptism is by its very nature an inconvenient act.  It’s a soaking experience that changes and charges a life.  Like getting married, it’s not an act to be entered into lightly or without serious deliberation.  It’s a lifetime commitment to follow Jesus anywhere and all ways.

And it’s the best decision I ever made.

Church Traditions You Won’t Find in the Bible (Part One): “The Sinner’s Prayer”

NOTE:  Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable.  But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought.  In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.

 

5889311_origIt’s the go-to prayer for many evangelicals.  Across the globe, countless new believers are led in a “sinner’s prayer” for salvation.  It’s the moment when the newly converted “asks Jesus into their heart.”  Many children are led in this prayer by Sunday School teachers, children’s pastors and parents.  “Just repeat after me,” says the evangelist, “and pray this prayer.”

Historically, the sinner’s prayer emerged in the 19th century and is largely attributed to Dwight L. Moody.  Later evangelicals, particularly the crusade preachers like Billy Graham, used the prayer alongside altar calls.  It’s not uncommon in today’s evangelical and non-denominational churches for a preacher to close his sermon with an invitation to close the eyes, raise a hand and repeat a dictated prayer silently.  After which, the announcement is made that several “new Christians” are now in the church.

It seems like an innocuous and efficient tradition.  What could be wrong with saying a “sinner’s prayer?”  Actually, there are several problems.

The first problem is there’s absolutely no biblical example for a sinner’s prayer in the New Testament, particularly in the book of Acts (which documents how the early church operated in the first-century world, showing how people became Christians).  There’s no example of a sinner’s prayer in church history until the 19th century.  Unlike other traditions like baptism, Lord’s Supper/Eucharist, preaching, singing and offerings, the “sinner’s prayer” (as a vehicle for salvation) is both historically and biblically absent.

The second problem is the “sinner’s prayer” could be easily confused as a human work.  It’s something you do to receive Grace, especially if you must “repeat” or “read” a prescribed prayer.  The very act of repeating another person’s specific prayer is an act or work.  You’re doing it to gain salvation.  I realize this is a troubling conclusion but many “Christians” today believe that because they “prayed the prayer” (or any prayer) that they’re saved and, biblically, that’s simply not possible (as I’ll reveal momentarily).  Prayer is part of salvation but it’s not the golden ticket.  In fact, biblically, you can be saved without ever saying a prayer!

A third problem is the idea of “asking Jesus into your heart.”  This is so common today in churchianity that few believers think twice about it.  Jesus lives in my heart, right?  Well, that’s a very loaded theological question.  What I can say confidently is nowhere in the conversion process of New Testament believers did anyone “ask Jesus into their heart” (or even imply it!).  To the contrary, the New Testament states a believer “receives” or is “filled” with the Holy Spirit when they’re saved. Jesus, according to apostolic writers, is in Heaven to one day return.  The Holy Spirit indwells the human heart and is given as a “deposit” to guarantee full salvation when Jesus returns (2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; 2 Timothy 1:14; Hebrews 9:28).

The fourth problem is the evangelical proposition, in particular, that belief alone grants salvation (and nothing else plays a part).  The Protestant Reformation recaptured an ancient biblical truth:  we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9).  However, in the past 150 years, many evangelical and non-denominational churches took it a step further:  faith or belief in God only saves.  But by that definition even the demons could gain salvation (James 2:19)!

So what does the New Testament actually say about salvation?  How (or when) is a person saved?  It’s a rather simple equation:  we are saved by grace, through faith, in baptism, for good works.

First, we are saved by GRACE (Ephesians 2:8-9).  We can’t do anything to gain God’s favor or earn His salvation.  Grace is free gift.  You can’t pray a prayer to be saved.  You can’t do enough good works.  You can’t even repent (change your habits, attitudes and lifestyle).

Second, we are saved through FAITH (Romans 5:1-2; Galatians 3:26Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 3:15; I Peter 1:9).  We must believe only in Jesus Christ.  Salvation comes in no other name (Acts 4:12).  Our faith is not in our parents, our pastor, our church, our denomination, our nationality, our ethnicity or our goodness.  Jesus alone saves us.

Third, we are saved in BAPTISM.  When we are baptized, according to apostolic teaching, we are “clothed in Christ” (Galatians 3:27), connected to the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:13); resurrected to life and dead to sin (Romans 6:3-14), spiritually washed (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5) and, yes, saved (I Peter 3:21).  In Acts 2:37-38, Peter reveals this simple template for salvation:  believe, repent, baptism.  It’s a popular evangelical idea to add “confession” (cherry-picking Romans 10:9-10) but confession is more a post-salvation act that proves your salvation.  Paul’s point in Romans 10, when writing to Roman Christians, isn’t to create a formula for salvation (belief and confess) but rather to reveal a continuing example of what the saved do:  they continue to believe and confess Christ as Lord after baptism (Romans 6:4ff).  Confession is important, but for the initiate a part of repentance. To learn more about baptism, watch this YouTube video I created.

Finally, we are saved for GOOD WORKS (James 2:14-26).  Once we are convicted and believe, then baptized, we experience the power to fully repent (change) and live abundantly (because the Holy Spirit lives inside us).  With changed attitudes come changed behaviors.  What we do and how we live proves our salvation.  James clearly points this out in his epistle.  Good works don’t save you, but once you are saved (belief, repentance, baptism), you will do good works as evidence you’re saved.

I truly don’t know how much more simple it can be.

Believe in Jesus.  Commit to change.  Be baptized.  Then live the change.

Throughout the book of Acts, the best textbook to show how the early church believed and practiced, no one was saved by saying a prayer alone.  No one was saved simply by doing acts of repentance.  Baptism, like the Red Sea for the Israelites, was the Divinely-orchestrated event that separated, sanctified and sealed.  Salvation didn’t come prior to the Red Sea but it was clearly pronounced after Pharaoh’s armies drowned in the waters (Exodus 15:1-2).  Paul even compared the Red Sea experience to baptism (I Corinthians 10:1-2) and professed that’s when he was “washed” and saved (Acts 22:16).

Of course the other cherry-picked Scripture for the sinner’s prayer is Revelation 3:20.  Jesus is standing at the heart’s door, knocking to come if we simply open it.  It’s a nice painting but a poor interpretation.  This passage has nothing to do with individual salvation.  Rather, it’s a corporate call to an entire first-century congregation to repent (they’re already believers!).  The whole church has locked Jesus out of their lives.

In summary, the “sinner’s prayer” is an evangelical salvation tool without a shred of biblical support and to employ it without repentance (which includes confessing and professing faith in Christ) and baptism to pronounce a person’s salvation is error.  If you truly desire salvation, follow Peter and Paul and the rest of the early church:  believe in Jesus, commit/confess to change and get baptized.

It’s truly that simple.

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