Monday, January 31, 2011

Theological Assertion

I am a big believer that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Theological Assertion - The modern Christian quest to discover, quantify, and actualize one's live purpose is a kind of crypto-holiness movement that (1) promises the unattainable (in this life at least), (2) gives Christians a distorted view of vocation, (3) obscures the Christian doctrines of repentance, hope, and suffering, and (4) presents a shallow do-it-yourself message of life change to unbelievers that is not evangelism in any true sense.

I welcome discussion on all points.

First, there can be no doubt that the therapeutic desire to realize the Christian life as defined by purpose is really a modern slant on good ole methodism. I recently heard something brilliant and entertaining from the brilliant and entertaining Rev Jonathan Fisk (who unanimously would win the Lutheran Blogosphere "New Internet Theologian of the Year Award" if such a thing ever existed... seriously, go watch his videos.) He correctly identified that the American church is overwhelmingly Baptist in its theology, Methodist in its practice, and Charismatic in its worship (thank you John Wesley and Charles Finney).

This holiness movement influence in terms of practice has given rise to all sorts of purpose-oriented books, bible studies, and even churches over the last several decades. Rather than see this as an improvement in the life of the church, discerning Christians should watch these aberrant developments with alarm once they realize the unintended consequences of such teachings.

1. Purpose promises the unattainable (in this life at least)...

Simul justus et peccator. We are simultaneously justified by the imputed grace of God on account of Christ. While we are a new creation in Christ Jesus [2 Corinthians 5:17], the old sinful nature still clings to our mortal flesh [Romans 7] in this life so that the life of the Christian is one of internal and external spiritual warfare [Ephesians 6; 2 Corinthians 10] that is only ended when the perishable passes away and we rise again in new life with imperishable and perfected bodies [1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 3].

Perhaps due to an improper appreciation for our fallen condition, obsessively chasing after purpose in this life gives the false impression to hearers that this perfected, fundamentally God-pleasing nature as a human being is attainable in the life of the Christian through discipline rather than through the death and resurrection of Christ. Sloppy preaching and teaching in this area strays dangerously into the theology of "infused grace" which is unbiblical and a Roman Catholic error that many synergistic Protestants seem to be out doing the papacy on in their zeal to realize the Baptist formal principle of "The Changed Life" and this Charismatic drive to perform mystical worship practices.

In this way, many protestant (and incorrectly named "non-denominational" churches) put the Bible and the Reformation aside and follow Rome down it's path of "Jesus saved you so that you can work harder to please God and either earn (in the hard form) or reimburse God (in the soft form) for your eternal salvation." The Bible does not speak this way. Instead, the good works for which Christians have been set aside to perform are actually the works of God through the Christian by faith [Philippians 2] for service to our neighbors. This principle of being "God's workmanship" stands directly opposed to the purpose-seeking idea that, while we are God's creation, we are fundamentally our own workmanship and we have just been not doing a very good job.

This distorted view of sanctification takes away with one hand what is only occasionally given with the other as legalism snatches away the sweetness and freedom of the gospel in favor of a new enslavement. To paraphrase Rev. Fisk: it falsely teaches that we have been set free so that we can be enslaved. This in itself is gross false doctrine that is dangerous to faith and injurious to eternal salvation because it places the trust of the believer back in his own works rather than pointing him to the cross and the hope that comes in our eventual perfection on the last day.

2. Purpose gives Christians a distorted view of vocation...

The doctrine of vocation is probably one of the most under-taught and misunderstood doctrine in all of Christendom. I submit that the void left by a true Christian understanding of what the Christian is to do and how he is to see his good works after conversion is what allows wrong-headed opinions like methodism and purpose to swoop in and take root. Christians have a legitimate need for training in a proper understanding in righteousness and good works. The faith within them cries out for this holy and practical teaching. When it is not given, well-meaning Christians seek anything that looks like it can fill that hole.

...but purpose is not the proper fit. Where a right view of vocation teaches the Christian to understand his place in the world wherever he may find himself at any given moment, "purpose" teaches him that his place in the world is some hidden mystery of God that must be sought out and discovered through all manner of mystical and rationalistic approaches. Purpose, calling upon mankind's natural desire to answer the question "what am I going to do with my life?", wrongly teaches you to look past the objective reality of where you may find yourself and who your neighbor is so that you can sink deep down within yourself to hear what God really wants you to do.

The reality is that God has already told you very clearly what he wants you to do: it's called "The Ten Commandments". They're written down in the book of Exodus so that you can look them up and apply them to every aspect of your life. Unfortunately, purpose distracts you from such pious self-examination and improvement in piety because, while the world moves on around you with ample opportunities to do God-pleasing works by faith, you sit and stew in your own egotistical juices as you try to discern what grand design awaits you in the kingdom of God.

The mother will ignore the rearing of her children as she sits in her bedroom praying for insight. The student will disregard his teacher's instructions as he wracks his brain over where God wants him to be. The worker will ignore the poor and needy all around him as he wonders what in the world he has been put on this earth to do. The pastor will skip proper sermon study and preparation in favor of spending hours contemplating whether God wants him to open an new ministry across town. Most tragically, churches will shelve the proclamation of the only Gospel which saves sinners from hell in order to help the above people find answers to their navel-gazing questions. It's all a horrible mistake. The military calls this "paralysis by analysis": you think so much about your actions that you fail to act and it is as if you never even engaged the problem at all.

3. Purpose obscures the Christian doctrines of repentance, hope, and suffering...

All one has to do is read the first few chapters of Ecclesiastes in order to learn that, yes, this life is full of meaningless vapor and pointless striving after ephemeral nonsense. It's a real problem that is a natural consequence of man's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. This world is a pretty horrible and futile place and all of creation groans in anticipation of being destroyed and made anew. Because the law is written on man's hearts, everyone (Christian and pagan alike) is consciously aware of this threat of pointlessness. The entire field of philosophy is consumed with man's attempt to answer these fundamental questions: "Why are we here? What are we doing? How do I achieve meaning?"

Christ came to earth and preached the answer to these questions: "Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!" (The kingdom of course being Christ himself.) Later, his own apostles preached the same answer: "Repent and be baptised everyone of you for the forgiveness of your sins" and "Repent and believe the Gospel." The holy spirit revealed this same answer to Martin Luther when he wrote: "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite ("do penance" or "repent"), willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance."

Here we see the true "purpose" of fallen man in this world in view of the Theology of the Cross. Do you not know what you should be doing? Look to Christ hanging on the cross. Repent and believe the Gospel. The devil encourages us to obsess over the question rather than looking to the answer and the quest for purpose that is being carried out by the church is a tool whereby many well-meaning believers are directed away from the cross so that they can curve in on themselves. This is where the rubber meets the road in the ages-old battle between the Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory. Is this all about the redemption won for you and all mankind on the cross by Christ? ...or is this about you and what you need to be doing with the 80 or so years you may (or may not) have on this earth.

We live in a fallen world. Corrupted and fallen from the original goodness that it once possessed at its divine creation, the child of God will always feel out of place here. He will always feel as though he (along with the rest of the world) is falling short of expectations. This place will always feel futile, sinful, and devoid of eternal meaning. You will always feel imperfect, partially blind, and wayward as you journey through a world that is not your true home. The Christian church tells people truthfully that these feelings of ache and homesickness are valid and good.

Do you feel like you are not living up to God's will? Of course! It's because you aren't! Do you feel like you do not pray as you ought? Of course! It's because you aren't! Do you feel rejected? Of course! As a Christian you will face rejection! These identifications and feelings of heartache are the law of God working in your own heart as it faces the assaults of your sinful flesh, this sinful world, and that liar: the devil. The living faith within you that clings to the perfect will of God and at least partially recognizes how the world should be but isn't can clearly see that these things are not taking place around and within you. It's easy to see how the world is failing.

But "purpose" does not say these things because legalism tells only a half truth. Instead of telling you the truth about your situation and pointing you to Jesus, purpose makes the sufferings and crosses that Christ Himself said that we will bear into a flaw in your faith and an oversight in your practice. Purpose peddlers do not speak as Paul does who tells his sheep things like:

"Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then I myself with the mind serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin."


"Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account."

Instead, purpose looks at your suffering and tells you that you are just not being Christian enough. Purpose does not point you to the only true hope which rests beyond the grave in a glorious resurrection. Instead, purpose mangles law and gospel by telling you to get to work because Christians shouldn't feel this way after all that Jesus has done for them. If you feel out of place and inadequate, the real problem is not your fallen condition: the real problem, in the sophists' estimation, is that you are living outside of God's true plan for your life. Once you discover and live your purpose, these feelings will subside.

I'm here to tell you that they will never go away this side of glory. Purpose is selling you a bill of goods. Your hope is not in yourself and what you could be doing. Your hope is in Christ and what He has done, what He continues to do, and what He will do on the Last Day. You feel this way because you are a fallen creature who is sinning and living in a fallen world filled with sinners. Your answer is not "try harder and conform better to God's unknowable will".

Your answer is "Repent and believe the Gospel."

4. Purpose presents a shallow do-it-yourself message of life change to unbelievers that is not evangelism in any true sense.

Since the completely erroneous teachings about repentance, hope, and suffering are believed by many American Christians, this is the "evangel" that they take to the lost. They preach the "changed life through better living that makes you feel better" because that is the message which has been given to them. The seed they cast falls on hard ground and in the weeds because it appeals to man's sinful need for autonomy and earning salvation rather than delivering the Holy Spirit through the clearly preached Word of God. It is not "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" but is a pseudogospel of Oprah do-goodism and sentimentality. It is a message that does not save. It makes people feel good... but the feeling does not last because the human invention of purpose, like all things under the sun, is vanity and a meaningless chasing after the wind.


Rev. Eric J Brown said...

As for point two, I am reminded of that great Lutheran theologian - Yoda.

"Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing."

Excitement, adventure, some mythical purpose, a Christian craves not these things.

Mike Baker said...

Purpose leads to Ego
Ego leads to narcissism
Narcissism leads to...


lol, where Lutherans would be without the Star Wars trilogies is beyond me! :P

Anonymous said...

Idolatry leads to the dark side....

Excellent post. I agree with your assertion.