Monday, April 20, 2009

Leap of Doubt #1 - Can there be just one true religion?

Easter Sunday, April 12 marked the beginning of our new series on doubt called Leap of Doubt. The first message in the series was titled Can there be just one true religion? and dealt with the issue of the exclusive nature of the claims of Jesus to be the only way to the Father.

To start the series, I mentioned that skepticism and doubt are good in that they lead us to challenge assumptions that we previously held uncritically. We all grow up learning a certain worldview from our parents and culture, and we all come to the place at some point in our lives where we have to own our belief-system. What do think about our original worldview and how does it hold up to critical challenges? Everyone goes through this process, not just Christians. Secular humanists and Muslims and Agnostics all go through this process of questioning beliefs they originally held without question. The goal, however, is not to allow skepticism to become a worldview itself - this simply leads to cynical people who question everything and believe nothing.

In this first sermon, I tried to show that Christianity is not alone in making exclusive truth claims. Every worldview makes claims of truth that it believes are superior to other truth claims. This pattern hold for atheists, agnostics, pluralists, and adherents to other religions. Every faith-system sees the world through a lens of exclusive beliefs that defines reality and makes sense of the world we encounter. The question is NOT about the arrogance of Christian truth-claims - the question is which set of exclusive beliefs creates gracious, loving, compassionate people? I made the case the Christian gospel gives us a unique framework by which to appreciate other people and worldviews and to love them despite our differences. But you have to decide that question for yourself.

The second objection to exclusivity I tried to address is really the central issue of the whole debate. Is the gospel message true? Who cares if it is exclusive if it is true? And on the flip side, who cares if it exclusive if it is false? We should accept it or reject it based on its truthfulness, not its exclusiveness. To answer this question, I believe we have to evaluate the central tenant of the Christian faith - did Jesus Christ rise from the dead? The resurrection question must be answered to evaluate the Christian faith. If Jesus did rise from the dead (as Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11) and appear to many witnesses in the flesh, then He is who He claimed to be, and we should submit ourselves to Him. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then everything else falls apart. The good news of biblical Christianity is that Jesus Christ conquered sin, death, and hell through His death and resurrection. I believe that the historical evidence of the gospels, the birth of the early church, the martyrs' death of the apostles, the empty grave, and post-resurrection appearances all give strong weight to the argument that Jesus is alive. Of course, the final evidence that convinced me is that He met me personally.

The final objection to the exclusive claims of Jesus is that they simply are not fair. In other words, how can Christianity be true when it would condemn so many people to eternal hell who do trust in the name of Jesus? Two quick points. First, we do know that God loves people more than we do because He sent His Son to die for Him on the cross. To question God's methods of salvation is to miss the heart of God for all people. Second, we also know that we don't want fair in our own lives. We can't live with fair. Fair would immediately send us to hell for the sins in our lives. We, like Paul and the disciples of the NT, need grace. The message of Jesus is the message of grace offered to those who don't deserve it.

At the end of each week's message, I am taking some questions by text-messaging. I wanted to post some answers to the questions I couldn't get to on Sunday morning. Here were some of the questions that I received related to this first sermon:

How can this church claim to have access to the one true faith when even Christian churches disagree about the truth?

This is a great question, and leads me to make sure we communicate the difference between open-handed and closed-handed doctrines. All "historically orthodox Christian" churches agree on the central teachings of the faith defined by the councils of the early church (at Nicea, Chalcedon, and Constantinople) which settled the issues of the doctrine of God (the Trinity), the doctrine of Jesus (fully God and man), and the doctrine of the work of Jesus (died for our sins and rose again). These are closed-handed issues. If a church doesn't affirm them, they are not historically Christian. I gave seven core doctrinal issues in my message in March on the risk of standing for truth that I believe all Christian churches hold to. Many other doctrinal issues are open-handed issues that create denominations, but don't make or break the faith. Open-handed issues would be like convictions on church-government, spiritual gifts, style of worship, etc. These issues may generate different denominations, but we can disagree on these without being outside the historic church.

I have a friend who is a committed atheist. How do I convince her that Jesus is real?

Ultimately, you can't - only God can. If that is true, then the first step in helping her meet the risen Christ is to pray for her daily. God responds to our prayers, so the front lines of the battle is fought on our knees. Pray faithfully that God will change her heart. Second, be faithful to communicate the gospel as the central issue. Don't get distracted by lots if small-issues. Make the resurrection of Jesus the central issue. As you continue to share the clear gospel message, God can use it to penetrate her heart. Finally, just be a good friend who is loving, compassionate, and gracious. Allow your friend to see the difference that Jesus Christ has made in your life through the gospel.

In theory, Christianity should produce the most loving, gracious people. But in reality, many non-Christians that I know are more understanding and compassionate than Christians I know. How do you explain this?

Two parts to this answer. First, many Christians in name are actually moralistic legalists. In other words, they have not realized that their position with God is based solely on the grace of God. They somehow think that God loves them because they have been a good person their whole life. This distortion of the gospel definitely creates arrogant, self-righteous people. But of course, Jesus was the most harsh with this type of person during his ministry - so this is NOT what Christianity is. Second, because the gospel teaches that we are reconciled to God by the work of Jesus and not by our good works, we should expect that many non-Christians are morally superior people. Some because they think their eternity depends on their daily works. Some because they had a good upbringing and are just morally outstanding people. This is not suprising biblically. The Scriptures teach that God puts the moral code of his law on the hearts of all people, so everyone knows what they should do even if we are unable to do it all the time.

I hope these thoughts help. Ultimately, the leap of doubt leads us from asking tough questions to assuming none of it is true. Our encouragement during this series is to ask the tough questions with an open heart and mind to see if God won't lead you through the evidence to take the leap of faith and put your trust in Jesus.

More thoughts later on the second message in this series that I preached last Sunday on the injustices the church has done in the name of Jesus throughout history.

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