Who’s in Charge Here?

Last Sunday I preached from Acts 12, an amusing and delightful passage about the relationship between Herod Agrippa and the early church.

Acts 12 highlights in vivid color how the goals of earthly rulers often (always?) are in conflict with the values of God’s kingdom. Agrippa was a man who desperately tried to control the world around him. He killed James and arrested Peter in an attempt to consolidate his own power. He was thwarted at every turn, however, because God’s plans continued to move forward in spite of Herod’s arrogant schemes.

Keep in mind that I prepared this message without knowing the outcome of yesterday’s election. The principles it contains are timeless.  So how should we think about earthly governments in light of Christ’s eternal kingdom?

First, recognize that there will always be conflict between the goals of worldly governments and the values of God’s kingdom. You and I might feel that one leader better represents God’s values than another, and we might be correct in our assessment. Nonetheless, no politician is a substitute for Jesus. Consider Herod for a moment: His basic goal was to establish his own authority in order to keep his position of leadership. That’s quite often the goal of political leaders. Even the best and most benevolent earthly leaders are simply imperfect representatives of King Jesus. If there is one idea that emerges from the history of Israel, it’s that no king is a substitute for the King.

When we forget that basic principle, we can easily begin to confuse the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of mankind. The consequence of that confusion is a failure to faithfully fulfill the mission we have been called to do, which is to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Mt 28:18-20). I’m not suggesting that we abstain from political involvement (see below), but instead that when we do participate, we do so as Kingdom representatives, determined to demonstrate Christ’s love and grace and justice and truth in every arena of our lives.

Second, don’t panic. I love the fact that Acts 12 tells us that Peter, on the night before his execution, was sleeping so soundly that an angel had to punch him in the ribs to wake him up. Why was Peter so calm? Because he knew that Herod wasn’t really in charge! Peter didn’t know he would be rescued, but he knew that whatever happened was part of God’s plan.

When we Christians panic about the outcome of an election, or angrily spew venom toward our political opponents, I think we demonstrate hearts that are a bit off center. We proclaim to those around us that we don’t trust God’s plan. As I study the book of Acts, I am convicted time and again by the response of the early Church to violent and wicked rulers. The Herods and the Caesars were much worse than either of our current political parties. Yet the apostles never seemed to respond in panic or fear. They simply preached the Gospel of grace, even to leaders who planned to have them killed.

Third, pray. In Acts 12, one little house church was quite startled to see Peter released from prison in response to their prayers. The passage vividly illustrates both the power of prayer, and the fact that we often doubt its power. Appealing to God is not the last resort of political losers. It’s the most effective means of participating in His work. Through prayer, we have the opportunity to see God change the hearts of sinners like you and me. God hears the prayers of His people, particularly when those prayers are earnest pleas for His kingdom to come (Matthew 6:9-13). So pray for our country, pray for our churches, pray for our leaders, and pray for yourself. Pray that you and I will be agents of His kingdom right now, as we wait for the eternal Kingdom to arrive.

Finally, participate in politics with the mindset of eternity. Just as we are called to represent Jesus in the classroom, the home, and the office, we can represent Him in politics. We can speak and vote and participate in a way that shows those around us where our allegiance is found. I think the manner in which we participate is as important as the positions we take. There are ways to speak the truth passionately without insulting or demeaning other people who are made in God’s image. In the final analysis, we hope and pray that men and women will come to know our Savior and be a part of the Kingdom that never ends and will never be voted out. Our primary goal, then, is not to align with a particular politician, but instead to represent Jesus in the political sphere (and every other sphere, for that matter).

I would love to hear your perspective, as well — as long as you keep it civil. What are your thoughts on the relationship we Christians ought to have with politics?

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C.S. Lewis, Inclusivism, and Scripture (Part 2)

Last week I began to address Jordan’s questions regarding C.S. Lewis’s views on inclusivism. I concluded that C.S. Lewis was indeed an inclusivist who held that although Jesus is the only way to eternal life, explicit faith in Christ is not necessary for salvation. Lewis’s views are echoed by other theologians and pastors — most notably, Billy Graham has endorsed a form of inclusivism in recent years.

So does the Scripture support inclusivism?

I’ll be arguing my position from the Bible, but my intent is not to label those who disagree with me as heretics or heathens. I’ll talk more about that issue in my final post on this subject, but my hope is to simply lay down the biblical facts as I see them.

That having been said, I strongly believe that the Bible supports Christian exclusivism, the belief that explicit faith in Christ is necessary for eternal life. Here’s why:

The Scripture consistently states that faith in Christ is necessary to receive salvation. Although you could argue that “faith in Christ” includes unconscious belief, this isn’t the most natural way to read the passages in question. For example, John 3:16-18 repeatedly talks about faith in Christ as necessary for salvation — it’s hard for me to imagine the original readers understanding that in any way other than explicit belief in what Jesus had accomplished through His death and resurrection. Romans 3 is another example. After declaring that nobody achieves eternal life through his own righteousness — because everybody is wicked — Paul states that justification comes only through belief in Christ. In other words, I think he directly contradicts the inclusivist position here by saying that no amount of sincerity or piety is enough to receive salvation apart from exercising faith in Christ.

Most of the apostles died trying to evangelize the world. Why would they do this if they felt that a sincere person could be saved apart from knowing about Jesus? Why not leave well enough alone? Why insist upon the worship of Jesus alone (and face terrible consequences for doing so) if it wasn’t really necessary? From what I see in the Scripture (particularly the book of Acts), they strongly believed in the exclusivity of salvation through faith in Christ.

Romans 1, in particular, eliminates the myth of the “righteous pagan.” In Romans 1 Paul states that worship of false gods is the way that people run away from God, not a way that they seek to know Him. As I stated above, his premise is that general revelation leads to condemnation, not to salvation. What we often call “seeking for God” is in fact a way of avoiding Him and rejecting Him. So the idea of an idolater in Africa who has never heard of Jesus but worships Him nonetheless is a myth, according to Romans 1.

For those who do sincerely want to know God, He provides further revelation leading to an understanding of the Gospel. I have biblical evidence of this and anecdotal evidence. From the Scripture, we see the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), who genuinely wants to understand the Old Testament but has nobody to tell him what it means. He is the paradigm of the “righteous pagan.” How does God respond? He sends Philip to the man, and Philip clearly explains the Gospel of Christ! Cornelius is another example (Acts 10). God sent Peter to this God-fearing Gentile, just so he could know about Jesus and be saved.

Anecdotally (from people I know personally), I’ve heard of Muslims having dreams instructing them to listen to a particular missionary who would tell them about Jesus. I know of a formerly Hindu man who had a vision of Jesus that led to his salvation. I strongly believe that God is gracious, and He can get the message of the Gospel to whomever He pleases, assuming those individuals are prepared to hear it.

And this is critical to explain about exclusivism — we don’t believe that everybody in the Middle East is going to hell because they happen to be born in a particular place with particular parents. To the contrary, God is very capable of penetrating those lands with the Gospel in any way He pleases, and He does it all the time. God is deeply gracious and concerned with the salvation of the entire world. And I think we will be surprised to see many people from all over the world with us in heaven because God in His mercy revealed the Gospel to them in amazing ways.

There’s obviously not enough space to answer every question on this topic here, so I’ll leave it to your comments. My next post will address the question of how we ought to respond to the writings of Lewis, and others who hold his view. What should we think about a brilliant Christian theologian who held a view with which many of us strongly disagree?

[Image via http://www.lostseed.com/meet-jesus/prayer.php]

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