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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Religion of the Heart

I recently finished a book on the the beginnings of evangelicalism in the 1700s. One of the basic ideas of the evangelical movement from its beginning is that knowing the truth about God and his ways, even saying that one agrees with that truth, does not of itself please God. Trying hard to make good choices and live a moral life does not of itself please God. Church membership, attendance, and involvement do not of themselves please God. What God is looking for is something much deeper, something that became known as “the religion of the heart.”

The religion of the heart has to do with the truth about God, but not just agreeing with the truth in the mind but also rejoicing about the truth in the emotions. The religion of the heart has to do with living a godly life, but it isn’t just trying to make good choices but also having a new craving for goodness that makes good choices possible. The religion of the heart has to do with church involvement, but it isn’t just to help oneself proceed on the right path but also an expression of joy that one has already found it.

The early evangelical leaders were not the first to talk this way; this idea was voiced throughout Christian history to that point (in particular, the Reformation comes to mind). But these young men (all under 40) were the first to apply the idea boldly to churches, communities, and nations where there were lots of people who by all appearances were committed Christians—people who agreed with every point of true Christian teaching, who were moral and upstanding, and who were strongly involved in church. The evangelicals told these people—even pastors!—that if they didn’t see evidence of the religion of the heart in their lives, they were no different from unconverted heathen going to hell. In fact, they were worse, because they should know better. When the first evangelicals preached to convert people, they weren’t preaching to unbelievers but to professing Christians.

Today throughout most of the West, even in the religious United States, it may be rare to find a person who agrees with sound Christian doctrine, lives a moral life, and is involved in church who does not have the religion of the heart. This is because sound doctrine, living according to God’s standards, and church involvement are no longer popular. But such people do still exist tucked in Bible-centered churches and in regions still ensconced in cultural Christianity (like the part of Pennsylvania where I live). So the preaching of the religion of the heart still matters.

Here are some questions to consider as you look for the religion of the heart in your own life:

  • Don’t ask yourself if you agree with Christian statements (as in our doctrinal statement for example). Ask yourself if these statements come out of your mouth even if you’re not asked. For example, if someone asks you if Jesus is Lord, you might say yes, but how often do you mention the name of Jesus Christ if no one asks you?
  • Don’t ask yourself if you try your best to do good. Ask yourself how often you cry out to God craving the One who is good.
  • Don’t ask yourself if you regularly attend and serve the church. Ask yourself if you are eager to come to worship and learn in church even when no one expects you there.

The religion of the heart is not something you can make in yourself. It’s not something you can decide to have. It’s not something a preacher or a parent or a church can give you. It’s something God gives. So if you don’t have it, ask! Seek! Knock repeatedly! Our gracious God will answer, and you will be saved.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Happy Anniversary, American Missions Movement

If you’re like me, you forgot a very important anniversary last Sunday, February 19. No, I didn’t forget my wedding anniversary (I think). February 19 was the 200th anniversary of the departure of Adoniram and Ann Judson and their colleagues from Salem, Massachusetts, the first American missionaries to minister outside the North American continent. Adoniram and Ann were 23 and 22 years old, respectively.

Adoniram Judson

Ann Judson

The Judsons and their companions, all Congregationalists, found themselves in Calcutta, India six months later with William Carey, an English Baptist who eventually became known as the “Father of Modern Missions.” On the way, Adoniram Judson had been wrestling with the appropriateness of infant baptism in light of the New Testament. In dialogue with Carey, Adoniram and Ann became convinced of Baptist teaching on the subject and were immersed in India.

The Judsons continued on to Burma, where they suffered greatly in pioneering evangelistic work that is still bearing fruit today. Meanwhile, the Congregationalists withdrew their support for the Judsons once their new Baptist convictions became known, so Baptists in the States scrambled to pick up the slack. The result was the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions, which still exists today under the name International Ministries, the foreign mission arm of my denomination, the American Baptist Churches/USA, which is why I feel like an extra big doofus for not remembering this anniversary.

The Judsons and their colleagues were the first in what became a flood of many thousands of missionaries to leave the United States to proclaim the gospel in parts of the world that never heard the name of Christ. And it all started 200 years ago last Sunday. So happy belated anniversary, and may “recognition of the LORD’s sovereign majesty . . . fill the earth just as the waters fill up the sea” (Hab. 2:14).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

So Things Are Bad, but They're Good Too (and a Comment on the President's Spirituality)

I have to admit, when I wrote my post of a couple days ago, I was feeling pretty down in the mouth about the United States. That hasn’t exactly gone away. But it was balanced a few hours later that evening when I watched this:

This is a video of the National Prayer Breakfast of February 2. First is a message by biographer, apologist, and erstwhile VeggieTales collaborator Eric Metaxas. It is an incisive, passionate, challenging, and surprisingly hilarious speech that winsomely but boldly proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have been reading The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys by Mark A. Noll. Most of the themes Noll cites that were woven into the core of modern evangelicalism in the English world 270 years ago—the distinction between religious performance and a supernaturally personal encounter with God, the persistent depravity of human nature overcome solely by Jesus Christ, and genuine faith necessarily stimulating countercultural action—are all on brilliant display in Metaxas’s speech. If this message can still be delivered and received by a room of some of the most powerful people in this nation, we still have a lot to rejoice about.

Though that’s the main thing I want you to see, it is interesting to me that as faithful as Metaxas’s message is to the roots of evangelicalism 270 years ago, President Obama’s comments following Metaxas’s are almost as reflective of the Social Gospel of 100 years ago. The President speaks surprisingly candidly of his daily spiritual routine and some of his spiritual journey to date, and what is striking to me is the persistent ethical bent in what he says. He speaks very much as a Christian and quotes the New Testament repeatedly, but all of the content is God’s law, and since that is his focus he readily acknowledges the reflection of that law naturally revealed in other religions. I have no doubt of the President’s sincerity as a Christian, including his undetailed report of how he met Christ and his life was changed. But I can’t help but wonder if the content of his spirituality is far more what humans ought to do for God than what God has done for them. Ethics are great, and I agree with every ethical principle the President gives his faith-driven rationale for in his remarks. But ethics are no gospel, no good news, to a person constituted to break them—a person like you and me. Without the gospel, the promise of the Christian ethical ideal remains permanently unfulfilled in the world and in my actions. With the gospel only, all things are possible.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

I Can't Believe It, but Here We Are

I am deeply concerned about the new rule coming down from the Department of Health and Human Services. As you may be aware, a rule then considered to be final was announced January 20 that requires health insurance plans to cover certain contraceptive services without charging a copay, co-insurance, or deductible. Houses of worship who object to such services on the basis of conscience were exempted from this rule, though they would be required to inform employees of free outlets at which they might receive these services. Other religious organizations were not exempted from the rule and would be required to provide insurance that covered these contraceptive services. (See the original HHS statement here.) A recent “compromise” offered by the administration on February 10 would have the insurance company inform the insured of the availability of these services directly instead of through the employer, but the services are the same, and the employer still has to purchase the insurance that pays for them.

The services requiring coverage include contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. All three of these directly violate the ethical teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Though many professing Catholics in America disagree with their church’s teaching about these, the institution itself and many of the faithful hold a clear, long-standing, well-attested ethical position. For my part, I do not agree with Catholic teaching that contraception and sterilization are clear-cut sins and violations of God’s commands, though I do find Catholic argumentation on these subjects thoughtful and not to be easily dismissed. I and very many evangelical Protestants, however, do agree with the Catholic Church that the so-called “morning after” pill (at least some versions of which can be taken within five days of conception), takes an innocent human life when it destroys a fertilized egg, a live human embryo. I do believe that even if there is no malicious intent on the part of the person taking the pill, the moral result is murder or at least manslaughter.

However, believe it or not, the subsidy of that act is not the main reason that I am so distressed by HHS’s rule. What perplexes me the most is the gross violation of religious liberty it constitutes. Understand what is happening here. For the first time I can remember in my life, the federal government is requiring that explicitly religious organizations provide people with the means to commit acts that violate the institutions’ beliefs and consciences. If they don’t, they will suffer consequences, perhaps including fines, shutting down the organization, and maybe even jail time for living according to their religious beliefs. I’m pretty sure that fits the definition of persecution.

For years I have heard some individuals make wild claims about the government prosecuting a war on Christians when this or that legislation is proposed or suit is litigated. Generally I have shared some concerns but have found nearly all specific allegations of “persecution” to be irresponsibly overstated, sometimes with outright lies. This time the danger is not overstated, and in fact Christians may find ourselves caught in a boy-that-cried-wolf situation with no one to listen to us anymore.

Imagine the pictures on the news when a Catholic bishop in full regalia walks handcuffed into jail. Imagine the interviews with the homeless who used to sleep in the shelter that has now closed because it can’t afford the fines for noncompliance levied against it. Imagine all this happening in the United States of America, the birthplace of the First Amendment.

Now imagine a few years later, after the government has enforced its rule and eliminated those organizations that wouldn’t yield their beliefs. Imagine after a complacent American citizenry—including religious persons that have no moral objection to contraception, sterilization, or abortifacients—treated the whole matter as No Big Deal. Then, once the government has proven that it can impose its will on some religious organizations, what will it do to the houses of worship that weren’t infringed upon the first time? And what other religious beliefs will it trample down once the precedent has been set and the wall restraining the government has been breached?

None of this will harm the kingdom of God in the least. It will not change the eternal good news about Jesus Christ. It will not destroy the church, and it will not change the end of the story of this world. But it will impoverish America, pervert one of her greatest ideals, and bring shame upon this beacon of liberty. Additionally, it will open a door for true persecution of Christian believers. Quite possibly, the state won’t walk through that door for a long time, but it will be there.

If you don’t mind suffering at the government’s hands for your religious beliefs, or if you don’t mind relinquishing them when the pressure comes, and if you don’t mind the persecution of others, then you have little to be concerned about by this HHS rule. But if you do mind these things, whatever your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), let me suggest that you sign a petition protesting this rule to be delivered to the White House on March 1. In addition, you may be interested in this letter to the President signed by a large number of intellectuals from a variety of religions and Christian traditions.

Please sign the petition, write the President, and talk this up. We must not stay silent.