The Ultimate Price

I have not published anything on this site since June of last year. I came very close to shutting it down as I was running out of inspiration on what to write. I had thought I was going to write essays on the intersection of religion and culture based on related news that was happening at the time but nothing was coming to me.

But I’ve received inspiration to continue on but focus more closely on providing essays on Christian discipleship. Future articles will deal with the subject on a more practical level than before, with shorter articles on what discipleship is about and what it involves, based on my personal experiences and what I have learned from others. I realize this narrows the scope of the site somewhat, as it will be geared towards those who consider themselves disciples or followers of Jesus Christ and wish to grow in their relationship with Him. That being said, my hope is that it will provide some insight for everyone to see what goes on in the life of a Christ follower.

Let me start with the theme of following Christ when it is darkest. This is appropriate given that it is Good Friday as I type this essay. On the day of his crucification and death, Jesus was abandoned by all his followers, save just a few who stood by him near the cross as He suffered. All but one of his twelve closest disciples were nowhere to be found at Jesus’ darkest hours. Just hours earlier, Peter had denied Him three times. Before that, Judas betrayed Him and handed Him over to the authorities to be killed. Others had scattered and ran away in fear.

But a disciple of Christ is not supposed to abandon his Lord, at any time. To follow Him means a life long commitment to Him, no matter what the cost. This is easier said than done. But how many who claim to be Christians actually understand this?

The cost to follow Jesus can seem somewhat academic to those of us who live in the comfort of the West. I cannot write about it sufficiently enough to properly capture it. I do want to illustrate it with a real incident of about twenty or so young Christian men who were brutally executed for their faith a few years ago. They were Egyptian Christians who were working in Libya and were capture by radical Islamists. Their families in Egypt were fervently praying that they would be released but when it became apparent that their deaths were imminent, many started to pray that they would remain strong and not abandon Christ in the darkest hour of their faith.

The radicals released a video of the captured Christian men on a beach somewhere in Libya. They were on their knees with a masked executor behind each of the men with a sword in hand ready to execute them. The men could have saved themselves then and there by renouncing their Lord. But they did not and each of them died as a martyr for their faith. Although greatly saddened, their families rejoiced that their men did not abandon their Lord, knowing that they would see them again in His kingdom.

Seeing the images of those men about to be killed, because they refused to abandon their Lord, haunts my thoughts from time to time. These men paid the ultimate price for their faith. This is what it means to follow Christ. Only a heart totally devoted to Jesus, in love and faith and dependence on Him, can truly follow Him.

Jesus once said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” To be a Christ follower is not a trivial thing. It demands our very lives. May those of us who are disciples of Christ reflect deeply on the sacrifice Christ paid for us and on the sacrifice these Egyptian disciples paid for their Lord.

2017 © Ed LeBlanc

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Don’t Romanticize Persecution

Rally (81 of 162)Serious Christians often lament the poor spiritual state of the western church. All around them, they see what Tim Keller calls “sleepy” Christians, those who are united with Christ but lead anemic spiritual lives with little in regards to ministry or carrying out the Great Commission. They also see “make-believe” Christians; those who proclaim faith in Christ, come to church semi-regularly but whose lives are firmly planted in the world.

From time to time, I have heard serious Christians speak openly that perhaps what the western church needs to experience is a little persecution in order to purify the church by waking up the sleepy Christians and giving the make-believe Christians a choice of either standing with Christ or the world. The thinking is that if the church was to undergo a bit of suffering for being an expression of Christianity in the public square, believers would be jolted from their comfortable spiritual lifestyle and forced to take their faith seriously or renounce all identification with Christ.

Under such a scenario, people both inside and outside the church would realize that following Christ is serious business and not a kind of leisure activity that enhances personal fulfillment. Those who decided to follow Christ would then do so with a deep commitment to Jesus, regardless of the personal cost. The words of Christ would be soberly taken: “If anyone would come after me, must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.”

The logic is not without precedent. Many people come to Christ or have their spiritual lives revitalized when they are faced with a deep personal crisis that dislocates their lives and often brings internal grief, despair and suffering. They turn to Christ not only out of desperation but also out of dependence on Him, leading them to a deeper relationship with Him that they could not have experience otherwise. In God’s economy, He often uses the trials of life to call individuals and whole groups of people to Himself.

However, I argue that a desire to see the western church engulfed in some kind of moderate persecution is not only unbiblical but harmful for the following reasons:

1. The New Testament never calls on Christians to ask God for persecution in the quest for greater godliness. Although hardships are part of being a disciple of Christ, Christians are not called to pray for persecution as a means of attaining greater Christlikeness. In fact, Paul seems to call for the exact opposite. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 he writes, “I urge then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone. For kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

2. There is no such thing as made-to-order persecution. People who talk about it always add the adjective “little” in order to express the desire that they are not looking for a large amount of persecution but just enough to wake up people. However, the history of the church is not one of “little” persecution. Millions of Christians through the ages have had to suffer incarceration, the loss of their families, the loss of their careers, even their lives in the face of brutal and long lasting persecution. I’m sure these believers were not looking for any persecution, be it big or small.

3. It paints the persecution experience as some kind of noble enterprise that will achieve positive ends. But this is only to romanticize something that has cost the lives of millions of believers through the ages, torn families apart and sometimes destroyed the church in certain parts of the world, such as in North Africa and the Middle East. In some cases, persecution does not achieve the desired results the romantics are looking for.

4. It trivializes those who are enduring great persecution for the sake of Christ in many parts of the world. The global church should and does fight the persecution of believers around the world, calling on governments to stop the jailing and killing of people whose faith they do not like. To think that a bit of persecution for the western church is a good thing is almost saying that those in jail for their faith are somehow better off for it. It sends a conflicting message in an age where the world wide persecution of the church is at an all time high.

The thinking that a little persecution is the best antidote for a sleepy western church may be well meaning but it is misplaced. It falsely romanticizes persecution and turns it into something minor that leads to a greater payoff. Instead, the church should start taking the scriptures seriously and asking the Holy Spirit to move her heart towards greater discipleship.

Persecution is deadly serious and the western church must respond vigorously against it for the sake of the persecuted church in other parts of the world. Jesus has already promised His church that, in this world, she will experience trouble. She doesn’t have to go looking for it or ask for a little bit of it. She only has to take heart because the Bridegroom has overcome the world.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

Reading the Heavy Books

Parliament_124_2013-08-23_IMG_7458_©EdLeBlancChristianity is a book-based faith, a faith centred around the Bible, a library of books containing diverse literary styles and possessing its own history.  Despite its ancient Near East background, the Bible commands universal appeal that transcends history and culture.  The Bible is a paradox in that it is both difficult and straightforward to understand.  Learned scholars grapple with its complexities while children in Sunday School grasp its simple concepts.

The church, as a creation of God with Christ as her head, is to be a source of teaching, training and learning to the saints.  As part of this ministry, the church is to be grounded in the Word of God, teaching it to all her members and preserving the integrity of the scriptures for the next generation of disciples of Christ.  Prior to the invention of the printing press, the church established an extensive manuscript tradition that preserved the ancient writings of key books and documents, including the Bible.

As part of her mission, the church has written many volumes to help Christians understand the scriptures, to develop and understand the doctrines she holds and to guide Christians on how to live out the principles of the Bible.  As a consequence, thousands of books have been written for Christians on a variety of topics.  

Why Read the Heavy Books?

Given its rich literary history, the church is no stranger to the writing and reading of books.  Because of this heritage and the great value in books, Christians should be great readers.  The sheer number and kinds of books is beyond comprehension.  As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.”  

Today, people can read books from pulp fiction novels to complex text books.  The advent of the Internet and the ubiquity of mobile computing devices has made access to books greater than ever before.  With so many books now available, what books should Christians be investing their precious hours in?  

It is important for Christians to be wise in selecting the books they read.   This doesn’t mean that Christians should not be reading books for entertainment or magazines to keep up with the news.  But in the long run, what books of value are being read?  This essay makes the case that Christians should be including, what I call, the heavy books into their reading list.  These are books that go beyond fiction and Christian living and delve into into the deeper truths of the faith.  They can be long, complicated and difficult to understand but they convey ideas, concepts and truths that go far beyond the simple milk of the faith and bring solid food to develop those longing to mature.  The solid deeper truths these books convey is why I call them the heavy books.  

So why should Christians read the heavy books?  

Transformational

The heavy books transform the Christian from being ignorant about the Bible and the rich faith of the gospel into one who is maturing in their faith.  I won’t go into all the benefits of a maturing Christian receives but I will say that life long immature Christians will live shallow spiritual lives.  Long term immaturity will also endanger the well being of the church into the next generation.  Heavy reading is not the only means of developing maturity but it plays a significant role.

Battle Ready

A Christian who is well grounded in the Word of God, who is confident in its reliability and trustworthiness and who is well acquainted with its deep doctrines, is a Christian who is well equipped to defend the gospel and the honour of the Lord in the mist of spiritual opposition.    The modern Christian lives in the marketplace of ideas where cultural diversity, secularism and postmodernism are the hallmarks of contemporary orthodoxy.  Many of these ideas run counter to the truths of the Bible yet can be quite rational and persuasive.  Without a deep understanding of the Bible and its doctrines of the faith, it is easy for a Christian to be tossed here and there by every wind of errant teaching (Ephesians 4:14).

Love the Lord with all Your Mind

Perhaps the biggest benefit of reading the heavy Christian books is learning to love God with all your mind.  Love is often seen as an activity of the heart where the heart becomes the only seat of love.  The mind is seen as something aloof to love yet Jesus teaches us to love God not only with our hearts but also our minds (Mark 12:30).

The intellect is where we build knowledge, wisdom and understanding and it often serves as a necessary counterbalance to our emotions which can often get us into trouble.  But our minds are not places of emotional coldness.  As chambers of knowledge and wisdom, the mind feeds the heart with greater understanding about Christ so that the heart can rejoice in what it knows of Him and thus love Him even more.  

To love God with our minds is to apprehend His wonder, majesty and awe so that our hearts and minds are lead to worship Him with greater reverence.  Loving God with our minds is the process that creates a greater vision of His magnificent glory.  

The Heavy Reading Plan

So what should the Christian be doing to become engaged in deep and heavy reading?  Here are three things for consideration to get one started:  

Read the Whole Bible

It may seem ridiculous to put this on a heavy reading plan but, believe it or not, many people who have been Christians for several years or even most of their lives have not read the entire Bible.  Typically it is some of the Old Testament books, like Ezekiel or Zechariah, that they have never read.   Many observers on the health of the church have warned for years that there is a growing trend of biblical illiteracy amongst Christians today.  A few generations ago, most Christians were heavy readers of the Bible but today many Christians have not only not read the Bible completely but know very little about its major themes, content, structure or background.  It is not that such Christians cannot read the Bible but that many of them don’t bother.  They read just enough to get by.   They are content to read the odd book about Christianity and Christian living and have other Christians tell them what the Bible says.  

Living the Christian life without reading the Scriptures for themselves, while relying on others to do the heavy lifting for them, breeds a class of illiterate Christians who become spiritually lazy.  They turn into life-long dependent babies looking to others to feed them spiritually.  

If you have not done so already, or if you haven’t done so in a very long time, put reading the entire Bible from cover to cover on the top of your heavy reading list.  Read it daily with the long term goal of making it through the entire Bible over the next year.  There are several reading plans out there that can provide you with a method to read the Bible in a year.  Make this a priority over any other type of reading you are engaged in and learn how to feed yourself spiritually. 

Read the Books About the Bible

Read books that tell you what the Bible is about.  Books that survey the Bible and describe what books make up the Bible will help you get a better grasp on the background of this library of sacred scripture.  Such books will tell you about the human writers of the books, when there were written, where, to whom and why they were written.  Such books will outline what each book of the Bible contains and describe their major themes.  These books will help you as you read the whole Bible by providing the background and context to make the scriptures come alive.    

Read books about the transmission of the Bible.  Many Christians don’t know that we do not have the original manuscripts of the books of Bible but only copies.  The art and science of examining these copies is called textual criticism and is a fascinating study into how the scriptures were passed down into the Bible of today.  It will also help to address the major question of how can we know we have the real Bible if the original manuscripts are gone?  This is heavy reading but it will help you become grounded in the reliability and veracity of the Bible we have today.  

Read the Theological Books

Christians who read Christian books will probably be reading books on Christian living, Christian novels and maybe the odd book on some hot topic.  Very few Christians pick up a book on a theological subject.  My local Christian book store used to post a list of the top 20 books it was selling.  When I read that list, almost all of the books were on Christian living.  Rarely would I find any books on theology that made the top 20 list.  This tells me that most Christians don’t do theology.  

Unfortunately, theology is given a bad rap in the church today.  It is perceived as being difficult to understand, highly academic and esoteric, totally irrelevant and, worst of, all completely boring.  As a consequence, most Christians run away when the topic of theology is brought up.  Too many pastor-teachers apologize for having to talk about it from the pulpit and usually dumb it down in their sermons, despite the fact that the seminary trained ones spent at least four years of their lives studying the subject!  

Such erroneous perceptions of theology have no place in a Christian’s reading habits.  Books on theology should be prominent on the heavy reading list as such books will take you deep into the wells of the truths of scripture and teach you insights you never knew existed.  Theology will open your eyes to the real meat of the faith, the solid food the writer of Hebrews talks about.  Reading quality books on theology will wean you off the baby milk of the faith and help to develop your spiritual maturity.  

Despite what some may say, theology is not boring or irrelevant.  Good books on theology will expand your heart and your mind to draw yourself closer to God and lead you to a greater knowledge of Christ. 

Heavy Reading is Good for the Christian

To paraphrase a common expression, you are what you read.  God has given us the gift of writing and reading books, a vehicle of communication that He still uses today to reveal Himself and His Son through His Holy Spirit.  Christians should strive to become good life-long readers.  A large part of this reading should include deep books on Christian theology and thought.  But through it all, Christians should return to becoming “people of the book” where all Christians know their Bibles deeply and read them thoroughly so that they conform more into the image of Christ.   

Bringing Back Theology

St. Alban'sThe Lack of a Mind

In his ground breaking book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind”, church historian Mark Noll famously wrote that the problem with the Evangelical mind is that there is none.  His book was a detailed lament on the lack of intellectualism and scholarship in the evangelical wing of the Christian church, touching a nerve amongst many leading evangelicals who agreed with his observations.

Today, some would argue that the state of the evangelical mind is much better than it was 20 years ago.  Some point to increased enrolment of evangelicals in many academic disciplines and schools and greater interaction with secular scholars on a variety of topics.    But what is the state of the Christian mind in churches today?  More importantly, what is the state of the Christian mind when it comes to the discipline of theology?

The Anti-Intellectual Bias

Centuries ago, the North African theologian Tertullian famously said, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?  What between heretics and Christians?”   At the time, many Christian theologians where attempting to use Greek philosophy to communicate the gospel to pagan audiences and to show that such philosophy had many corresponding parallels with Christianity.  Many others, such as Tertullian, were concerned that such use of   philosophy placed the gospel in a subservient role in order to fit the Hellenistic world view.

A form of Tertullian’s view predominated much of the thinking of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity for much of the 20th century.  Christians in these communities had little time for intellectual concerns and had adopted a strong anti-intellectual bias against the academy and its pursuits.   To them the simplicity of the gospel, the plain reading of scripture and a non-engagement with the world were seen as spiritual virtues to be embraced.  These disciplines, including theology, were considered ethereal, irrelevant and even dangerous to the faith and Christian living.

The Church’s Problem with Theology 

Theology is generally perceived as overly academic, difficult to understand, potentially divisive and generally irrelevant to Christian living.    Therefore, theology has a low profile within most churches. This is paradoxical as theology, by definition, is about the study of God and the things of God.  Shouldn’t churches then be embracing theology?

Most pastors in evangelical churches today are university educated and have received seminary training.  However, when it comes to preaching and teaching, my limited observation has been that few pastors teach or explain theological concepts with any degree of rigour or depth.   When faced with handling a theological idea, I find many preachers apologize to the congregation that they have to talk theology and then proceed to “dumb down” the concepts and quickly go through them in order to get back to their regular sermon style.  There seems to be a failure by many preachers to consider theology important and to apply their seminary training to make theology understandable, important and relevant.

Every Christian engages in theology.  All Christians have a theological framework that they have acquired or developed that they use to understand their faith and their spiritual reality.  Their theology could be simple.  It could be partially or completely contrary to what the church teaches and what the Bible says.  Many Christians would claim they don’t think about theology at all. The reality is that their faith is shaped by the theological worldview they do possess, whether they are conscious of it or not.

The denigration or ignorance of theology creates a major problem for the church.  It makes her vulnerable to the development of theological concepts that are contrary to biblical theology or what the bible teaches.  Given the contemporary spiritual flavours of the day, relativism has crept into many people’s theological frameworks where spiritual truths are simply what people want them to be.  Such views strip away the concept of a theology governed by an authoritative bible and a hermeneutic guided by the Holy Spirit.

The problem is that churches ignore the study and discipline of theology at their peril.  The potential for wrong teaching, wrong belief and wrong application is very great.  Christians become immature in their faith and vulnerable to all kinds of unbiblical ideas and views.

The Steps Back to Theology

What can churches do to recover theology as a part of their teaching, culture and community?  Here are some key steps that can help:

The Leadership Must Embrace Theology

If a church is to embrace and welcome theology, there has to be a commitment by the elders and the pastoral staff to the idea that theology is important and needs to become a critical part of their church’s faith culture.  The leadership has to take the lead in bringing theology back into their church in a concrete manner otherwise it will not happen.  The leadership has to understand and believe in the need for theology, the consequences of ignoring it and then teach and lead the church to embrace it.

Teach Theology: Young and Old

Theology is not only for adults but children as well.  Scripture is clear that even children are to come under the hearing of the Word of God and to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength.  The bible must not become a set of disconnected stories containing moral lessons for children.  Its great theological truths about the nature and wonder of God must be revealed to them.  Too often, churches and homes teach the bible to their children as it was a book of interesting stories on how God can meet their needs.  The theology of the bible is far more than a batch of morality tales.  The bible contains deep spiritual riches that the discipline of theology can help unpack to adults and children alike.

Show it as Relevant, Important and Exciting

Preachers and teachers need to introduce robust theology into their sermons and in their classrooms and finally end the myth that theology is boring and irrelevant.  Since when is God boring?  Since when is God irrelevant?  Many don’t realize that God is the centre of the theological enterprise and proper biblical theology points the church to Him.  Preachers and teachers of the bible must look at the scriptures more theologically and reveal to the church how it can illuminate the glory and majesty of the triune God and the spiritual riches He brings.   There is nothing boring or irrelevant in any of this.

Many churches are theologically anaemic, causing them to become spiritually weak, ignorant of the deep truths of the faith and biblically illiterate.  Such churches run the strong risk of collapsing into something other than biblical Christianity.  It is time for the church to re-embrace that ancient yet critical intellectual discipline of theology in order for her to thrive and grow for the glory of her exalted Head until He comes again.

2013 © Ed LeBlanc