Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Truly reformed

I believe in the sovereignty of God, the Five Points of Calvinism, the Solas of the Reformation, I believe that grace precedes faith in regeneration. Theologically, I am Reformed. Sociologically, I am simply a Christian – or at least I want to be. The tricky thing about our hearts is that they can turn even a good thing into an engine of oppression. It happens when our theological distinctives make us aloof from other Christians. That’s when, functionally, we relocate ourselves outside the gospel and inside Galatianism.

The Judaizers in Galatia did not see their distinctive – the rite of circumcision – as problematic. They could claim biblical authority for it in Genesis 17 and the Abrahamic covenant. But their distinctive functioned as an addition to the all-sufficiency of Jesus himself. Today the flash point is not circumcision. It can be Reformed theology. But no matter how well argued our position is biblically, if it functions in our hearts as an addition to Jesus, it ends up as a form of legalistic divisiveness.

Paul answered the theological aspects of the Galatian error with solid theology. But the “whiff test” that something was wrong in those Galatian churches was more subtle than theology alone. The problem was also sociological. “They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them” (Galatians 4:17). In other words, “The legalists want to ‘disciple’ you. But really, they’re manipulating you. By emphasizing their distinctive, they want you to feel excluded so that you will conform to them.” It’s like chapter two of Tom Sawyer. Remember how Tom got the other boys to whitewash the fence for him? Mark Twain explained: “In order to make a man or boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.” Paul saw it happening in Galatia. But the gospel makes full inclusion in the church easy to attain. It re-sets everyone’s status in terms of God’s grace alone. God’s grace in Christ crucified, and nothing more. He alone makes us kosher. He himself.

The Judaizers would probably have answered at this point, “We love Jesus too. But how can you be a first-rate believer, really set apart to God, without circumcision, so plainly commanded right here in the Bible? This isn’t an add-on. It’s the full-meal deal. God says so.”

Their misuse of the Bible showed up in social dysfunction. “It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised. . . . They desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh” (Galatians 6:12-13). In other words, “When Christians, whatever the label or badge or shibboleth, start pressuring you to come into line with their distinctive, you know something’s wrong. They want to enhance their own significance by your conformity to them: ‘See? We’re better. We’re superior. People are moving our way. They are becoming like us. We’re the buzz.’” What is this, but deep emotional emptiness medicating itself by relational manipulation? This is not about Christ. This is about Self. Even Peter fell into this hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-14). But no matter who is involved, this is not the ministry of the gospel. Even if a biblical argument can be made for a certain position, and we all want to be biblical, the proof of what’s really happening is not in the theological argumentation but in the sociological integration.

Paul had thought it through. He made a decision that the bedrock of his emotional okayness would forever lie here: “Far be it from me to boast [establish my personal significance] except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:14-15). In other words, “Here is all I need for my deepest sense of myself: Jesus Christ crucified. His cross has deconstructed me and remade me, and I am happy. Everything else is at best secondary, possibly irrelevant, even counterproductive. Let Jesus alone stand forth in my theology, in my emotional well-being and in my relationships with other Christians!” This settledness in Paul’s heart made him a life-giving man for other people. He was a free man, setting others free (Galatians 5:1). This is the acid test of a truly Reformed ministry – that other believers need not be Reformed in order to be respected and included in our hearts.

Whatever divides us emotionally from other Bible-believing, Christ-honoring Christians is a “plus” we’re adding to the gospel. It is the Galatian impulse of self-exaltation. It can even become a club with which we bash other Christians, at least in our thoughts, to punish, to exclude and to force into line with us.

What unifies the church is the gospel. What defines the gospel is the Bible. What interprets the Bible correctly is a hermeneutic centered on Jesus Christ crucified, the all-sufficient Savior of sinners, who gives himself away on terms of radical grace to all alike. What proves that that gospel hermeneutic has captured our hearts is that we are not looking down on other believers but lifting them up, not seeing ourselves as better but grateful for their contribution to the cause, not standing aloof but embracing them freely, not wishing they would become like us but serving them in love (Galatians 5:13).

My Reformed friend, can you move among other Christian groups and really enjoy them? Do you admire them? Even if you disagree with them in some ways, do you learn from them? What is the emotional tilt of your heart – toward them or away from them? If your Reformed theology has morphed functionally into Galatian sociology, the remedy is not to abandon your Reformed theology. The remedy is to take your Reformed theology to a deeper level. Let it reduce you to Jesus only. Let it humble you. Let this gracious doctrine make you a fun person to be around. The proof that we are Reformed will be all the wonderful Christians we discover around us who are not Reformed. Amazing people. Heroic people. Blood-bought people. People with whom we are eternally one – in Christ alone.