“Deadly Trappings” of Evangelicalism

Several months ago, Joe Carter wrote a blog article titled ‘Ten Deadly Trappings of Evangelism,’ where he describes his concern for “the way in which evangelicals tend to embrace whatever trends and kitsch happen to be hot sellers at ‘Christian’ bookstores.” As I read his post for the first time this morning, I couldn’t help but finding myself constantly mumbling to myself, “Yes, yes, yes!” Why? Because Mr. Carter ‘gets it’ in that, while recognizing many Evangelical fads will quickly pass, much of what has become mainstay fixtures in Evangelical culture have led Evangelicals past the point of irreverence into the land of irrelevance.

While I encourage you to read the entire article, let’s go ahead and look at just a few…using Carter’s numbering:

#1) The Sinner’s Prayer—Carter says, “The gates of hell have a special entrance reserved for people who thought that they had a ticket into heaven because someone told them all they needed to do was recite the ‘sinner’s prayer.'” I couldn’t agree more. For a group that is almost completely anti-sacramental, Evangelicals practically treat the sinner’s prayer as an ex opere operato indispensible means of grace, the Evangelical sacrament, that guarantees one’s salvation ‘from the work performed’ (which is what ex opere operato means).

#3) “Do you know Jesus as…” —here Carter writes, “This is one question that needs never be asked” and then goes on to give several reasons why. The funniest and most pointed reason he gives is that in asking this question “you just activated [the hearer’s] Fundie-alert system and caused them to switch their brains into ignore mode. Instead of asking about a ‘personal savior’ you might want to simply try to get to know the person.” I would add to this observation that the very phrase “personal Savior” is not only in-house, Evangelical lingo, but it’s poorly chosen lingo. Nowhere in Scripture do we read of a ‘personal Savior.’ Surely there’s an historical context out of which the phrase grew, but for the life of me I can’t see how these words are meaningful to anyone today. (I’d lump “accepting Christ” into this category too, but at least there is biblical precedent for the phrase, even if only in one passage.)

#4) Tribulationism—I hardly feel able to write on this because all the end-times madness within Evangelicalism makes me nauseated. To focus so exclusively on the end-times at the expense of truly significant matters of the Gospel is revolting…plus I’m an amillenialist anyway, so all those pre-trib, pre-mil folks have it wrong anyway (grin).

#5) Testimonies—I’ll never forget that one of the most stressful parts of my seminary application was my “Personal Testimony.” Knowing how much emphasis is placed on this in the denomination affiliated with the school and coming from outside of that tradition, I worried incessantly over writing something that would be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The worst part of personal testimonies, despite their attempts to make the gospel ‘real’ to the unbeliever, is that all-too-often they focus exclusively on ‘me.’  As Carter says, “You are only a bit player in the narrative thread; the main part goes to the Divine Protagonist. In fact, He already has a pretty good story so why not just tell that one instead?” Touché, Mr. Carter.  Touché

#6) The altar call—I never understood why Baptistic Christians (Evangelicals-at-large) talked so much about altars when they don’t really have altars in their churches, something picked up by other folks as well. For me, this is part of the “Evangelical sacrament” discussed above.

#8) Protestant prayers—With respect to prayers, Carter writes:

First, I’m not used to hearing prayers that don’t contain the word “just” (as in “We just want to thank you Lord…”) so [the Lord’s prayer] had an odd ring to it. Second, it seemed to violate the accepted standards for public prayer. I had always assumed that praying in public required being able to interlace some just-want-to’s in with some Lord-thank-you-for’s and be- with-us-as-we’s in a coherent fashion before toppping it all with an Amen. Third, I thought that prayers are supposed to be spontaneous–from the heart, off the top of the head–emanations, rather than prepackaged recitations. If it ain’t original, it ain’t prayer, right? Can I get an amen?

I surely can’t articulate the current sad state of the predominance of our public prayers any better than that.

Mr. Carter sums up his entire post, an entire series of posts in fact, by saying, “We evangelicals don’t need tools of evangelism. We don’t need fads and fixtures. We don’t need anything more than the Gospel. For that is one fixture of our faith that will never go out of style.” How right he is! We don’t need all the silly, irreverent, stupid ‘stuff’ that not only comes and goes in fads but that has become so much of the permanent Evangelical identity—all of which, I’m afraid, has led to our irrelevance, mockery, and slander…not because of our faithfulness to Christ, which would be noble, but because of our own loss of the essence of the Gospel.

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Still More Luther on Prayer

Luther and Lutherans aren’t exactly known for being bold or fervent prayer warriors, which is unfortunate.  In fact, quite the opposite is true.  We are scorned by many Evangelicals for our prepared collects and carefully crafted prayers…though clearly the Holy Spirit is more glorified by extemporaneous prayers, right?  Sarcasm aside, Luther was a bold warrior in prayer, and he has much to teach us if we will only listen.  It is well known that he wrestled constantly against the Devil, but he was one also to wrestle with God in prayer…boldly.  As he says:

We should pray with confidence, knowing that God will answer our requests without delay.  It’s impossible for sincere, persistent prayer to remain unheard.  But because we don’t believe, we aren’t persistent enough and don’t experience God’s goodness and help.  So we must become more enthusiastic about faith and prayer, knowing that God is pleased when we persevere.  In fact, God ordered us to be persistent in prayer:  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mt 7.7).

Our prayers are answered much differently–actually, more generously–than we could ever ask or imagine (Eph 3.20).  Paul says, “In the same way…” (Rom 8.26-27).

We always ask for less than we should and don’t even think God is willing to give us what we ask for.  We don’t ask the right way.  We don’t understand that what we pray about is more important than we can comprehend.  We think small, but the Lord is great and powerful.  He expects us to ask for great things.  He wants to give them to us to demonstrate his almighty power.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional /LW 6:158)

Let our own prayers be emboldened, and “let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most!” (Heb 4.16 NLT).

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Luther on Hard Sayings of Scripture

When it comes to God’s Word and how God deals with us, we shouldn’t worry whether or not it makes sense.  If you want to be a Christian and understand the teachings of the Christian faith, you shouldn’t judge the Christian doctrines with your mind to find out whether or not they sound correct.  In stead, you should immediately say, “I’m not asking how it all makes sense.  All I need to know is whether it is God’s Word or not.  If God said it, then that decides it.”  Often I have warned you not to argue about lofty, spiritual matters or try to figure them out.  For as soon as you try to make sense of them and put them in terms you can understand, you slip and fall…These teachings transcend our reason.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 23:78)

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Still More Luther on Prayer

For the Christian, prayer is part of what we are.  It should be more than second nature, it should be first nature…and yet, for many of us, we struggle throughout our lives trying to develop our “prayer life” to the point of our own satisfaction.  Many times, especially in times of backsliding, we often hesitate to pray, thinking that our prayers will not be heard on account of our complete lack of personal righteousness.  This line of thinking, however, is incorrect.   Our prayers are never heard because of anything inherent in us, but are heard and answered solely because of the faithfulness and mercy of God.  As Luther says, writing on Luke 18.9-14:

Some say, “I would feel better about God hearing my prayer if I were more worthy and lived a better life.”  I simply answer:  If you don’t want to pray before you feel that you are worthy or qualified, then you will never pray again.  Prayer must not be based on or depend on your personal worthiness or the quality of the prayer itself; rather, it must be based on the unchanging truth of God’s promise.  If the prayer is based on itself or on anything else besides God’s promise, then it’s a false prayer that deceives you–even if your heart is breaking with intense devotion and you are weeping drops of blood.

We pray because we are unworthy to pray.  Our prayers are heard precisely because we believe that we are unworthy.  We become worthy to pray when we risk everything on God’s faithfulness alone.

As usual, Luther totally nails this, “We become worthy to pray when we risk everything on God’s faithfulness alone.”   Yes!  Prayer is risky business, not because of our unrighteousness but because of our complete and utter dependence upon God!

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Luther on Christ’s Victory

Peace is something for which we all strive, hope, and long.  A lack of peace from physical troubles, emotional troubles, and spiritual troubles is something that plagues each of us from time to time or season to season.  Jesus spoke of giving us peace–peace that was possible because of his victory over the world; victory that came as the cost of his perfect life, suffering, death (cf. Jn 16.33).

His victory is our hope.  Luther writes:

We should learn to remind ourselves of Christ’s victory.  In Christ, we already have everything that we need.  We live only to spread this message of victory to other people.  With our words and example, we tell them about the victory that Christ secured for us and gave to us.  Christ, our victor, accomplished everything.  We don’t need to add anything to it.  We don’t need to wipe away our own sins or try to conquer death and the devil.  Everything has already been done for us.  We’re not fighting the real battle.  We’re only suffering now in order to share in Christ’s victory…The battle must have been won already if we are to have any comfort and peace.  Christ says, “I have already won.  Accept my victory.  Sing about it and glority it.  Take comfort in it.”…

May God help us to hold onto to Christ’s victory during our troubles and when we’re dying.  Even though we don’t understand these words of Christ completely, we can still believe in them in times of trouble and reassure ourselves: “My Lord and Savior spoke thse words to my heart.  In Christ I have a victor over the world, death, and the devil.  It doesn’t matter how small and weak I am.  Amen.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 24:421)

Let us comfort ourselves with these words…we have a victor in Christ Jesus, no matter how small and weak we are!   Amen.

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Luther on God’s Ways

Anyone who has been a believer for any time at all will soon come to a point in life where they simply wonder why God has acted the way he has or allowed things to play out the way they did.  I suppose there is comfort in knowing that, “Why?” is one of the universal questions of the Christian life.  Luther says:

God leads and directs his people in mysterious ways.  In the Bible, we read, “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen” (Ps 77.19).  Christ himself told Peter, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (Jn 13.7).  Christ seems to be saying, “You want to see me and want me to do what seems good and right to you.  But I will act in a way that will make you think I’m a fool rather than God.  You will see my back, not my face.  You won’t understand what I’m doing or why I’m doing it.  Then I’ll be able to mold you and remold you the way I would like.  My methods may appear as foolish to you as if they were from the devil himself.”

We need to learn how God guides his people as they grow and develop.  I too have often tried to dictate to our Lord God a certain way in which I expect him to run things.  I have often said, “O Lord, would you please do it this way and make it come out that way?”  But God did just the opposite, even though I said to myself, “This is a good suggestion that will bring honor to God and expand his kingdom.”  Undoubtedly, God must have laughed at my so-called wisdom and said, “All right, I know that you are an intelligent, educated person, but I never needed a Peter, a Luther, or anyone else to teach, inform, rule, or guide me.  I am not a God who will allow himself to be taught or directed by others.  Rather, I am the one who leads, rules, and teaches people.”
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 7:103)

Oh, how often have I prayed in this way?!  “God, please make this happen in just this way…”  Why must I need reminding that my seeming intellect is foolishness in the sight of an omnipotent God?  There is some consolation that, just as God never needs me to enlighten him, so too he “never needed a Peter, a Luther, or anyone else.”  At least if I’m getting a great lesson in humility, I can enjoy good company!

In all seriousness, when events play out exactly opposite of the way they think, why do I question God, his goodness, or his wisdom?  Should I not be reminded that even Job, who was “blameless and upright…who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1.1) did not receive an answer when he asked God, “Why?”  What should I, a much greater sinner, expect when asking the same question?  Should we not be reminded that God has said, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55.9, ESV)?  There are times when I need to be reminded more personally that God has spoken these words to me, “So are my ways higher than T.C.’s ways and my thoughts than T.C.’s thoughts.”  As much as anyone, I need to be reminded that those pieces of paper on the wall that the world puts so much faith in are really laughable in the wisdom and sight of God…

True wisdom comes not from education or the reading of many books (or blogs!) but from humbly walking with Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Worthless Things

I love it when my daily lectionary readings come together and really punch me in the chest!  This morning’s Psalter reading (from BoC) and Gospel reading (from LSB) did just that…and it was awesome.

In Psalm 119, I read:

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.  (Ps 119.37, ESV)

That line was enough to get and keep me thinking about the worthless things of the world that so often entice us away from what is truly important.  Surely we could all provide a litany of these sorts of things that almost continually threaten to pull our attention away from Christ and his kingdom.  Quite honestly, I was driven to repentance over all the times that I wander, pursuing these worthless things instead of clinging to Christ–and pleaded with God for grace to focus more on him than the world.

Then in Matthew, I read:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Mt 4.1-11, ESV)

No sooner was my prayer uttered than it was answered in this account from the life of Christ!  Here he faced temptation to chase after what are clearly ‘worthless things’:

  • Necessary (but mundane) necessities over which Christ has taught us not to worry
  • Spectacular and miraculous manifestations, which can actually be sinful tests of God
  • Personal glory and honor, which clearly is wrong when sought out, esp. through sinful means

To beat the temptations of these worthless things, Jesus relied continually on the Word of God to focus on the revealed will of God.

Sure, it’s simple.  Sure, we’ve heard this countless times.  Sure, we know these things to be true…

…and yet, like all the blessings of the God in Christ Jesus, we cannot hear these words too often.  Thanks be to God for his grace!

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