Thursday, February 9, 2017

Theology for "dummies" (like me)

Confession Time: The past few months have been a struggle for me. I scroll through my newsfeed on Facebook or Twitter and can feel my blood pressure rising. Instead of seeing people's happy life events and funny comments, it seems that too many people are posting articles and comments of a political nature. I, too, have made political posts and comments (since we are being honest here). I don't start out wanting to be political, but I have a hard time not speaking up in response to the strange marriage of American politics with Christian theology that I keep seeing on social media. Those kind of posts send a particular message to the lost -- a message that Jesus only loves certain people. Here is one such post that really got my blood boiling yesterday.


The theology of this political meme is that the immigrants being "banned" by President Trump's recent executive order are no different than the people Jesus himself has "banned" from entering Heaven. It imagines that Heaven has a wall to keep certain people out and that there's some extreme process required to get in.

And I can see where some people might think it's okay to make such a claim, since Jesus said "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." (John 14:6) It is true to say that you can't get into Heaven without a saving relationship with Jesus. However, it isn't so hard to have a relationship with Jesus as some people seem to believe. In fact, Jesus and the disciples made it clear that Jesus was for all people, not just the Jews who had previously been billed as "God's chosen people". Jesus was for the Gentiles, too (a term which covered all the non-Jewish people). In fact, most of the New Testament was written by a missionary named Paul whose entire ministry was aimed at Gentiles.

The really great thing about the Bible is that there is a lot to wrestle with. We aren't given cut-and-dry answers to all the big issues. I think that's on purpose so that we will never be content with our existing knowledge of the Bible. God wants us to keep reading it and applying it and wrestling with the nuances and re-applying it...until we die.

Because it has so many unexplained nuances, there are different ways to interpret Scripture and what it means for Christ-followers.

One such interpretation of Scripture is called "Calvinism" (named after theologian John Calvin) and rests on five points known as the "TULIP". It says essentially that each of us on earth are totally depraved, meaning that all parts of our humanity are affected by sin and that we cannot, on our own, achieve salvation and oneness with a perfect God. It says that God elected or chose certain people who would have their sinful hearts "softened" to accept the saving message of Jesus. Essentially, Calvinism says that the message of Jesus' grace will be irresistible for those who have been chosen by God to receive salvation. Irresistible, meaning they cannot resist salvation. Even if they tried. And, once a chosen person has accepted salvation, it cannot be lost. Ever. No matter what they do.

Calvinism is the theology that drives some denominations, like Baptists and Presbyterians. Taken to an extreme, it would be easy to say that certain people have been chosen to receive a special measure of God's grace and that other people are not chosen and it doesn't matter so much what happens to them on planet earth because they're going to Hell someday, regardless. We can easily see this theology play out in politics right now as the Republican party is set on keeping Muslim refugees out of America. In their view, the only thing that can come of such a move would be to spread the blessings (financial comfort, democracy, capitalism) of the elect (American Christians) out toward those who are not chosen (Muslims).

But Calvinism isn't the only theology out there. Wesleyan Armenian (named after John Wesley and Jacob Armenus) is the theology that says we humans are sinful from birth, but still have a hint of the divine within us -- we are still image-bearers of God. They would say Jesus' grace is for all people, but that God gave mankind free will to choose to accept salvation. In other words, God wants all of his creation to be in a perfect relationship with him, but they have to choose that relationship for themselves, it isn't forced upon them. To put it in dummies-friendly terms, it is like a guy who asks a girl to marry him. He put the offer out there but cannot force her to say "yes" or to actually become his wife. Even if we believe in Jesus' existence, we still have to be in a relationship with him. Wesleyan Armenian theology would say that having a relationship with Jesus can transform us from depraved individuals into people with the potential to become more and more like him as we spend time with him.

Wesleyan Armenian is the theology that drives the Methodist denomination, among others. This theology would say that all people are potential Christ-followers who deeply need the opportunity to accept Jesus' offer of salvation. In order to accept Jesus' offer, people must first know Jesus and his love so that they will desire to choose -- with their free will -- to be in a relationship with Jesus so their lives can be transformed. A Wesleyan would argue that it's only too late to lead someone to Jesus if they are dead. They would also argue that no people group is off limits with the Gospel (aka: Good News of Jesus) message. Their audience includes people from all walks of life and with all sin backgrounds (including homosexuals).

Both kinds of theology have Bible verses they use to back up their beliefs. And the people who follow the various theologies are very certain theirs is the correct way to interpret God's word. When they read God's word, their theology is the one that drives their understanding of what the Bible says. It becomes the lens through which they read Scripture.

In my personal opinion, the heart of Jesus fits better with the Wesleyan theology. I have a hard time imagining that God would create all of humanity, but only choose to have a relationship with some of them. That would be like a parent who has five children but chooses to only love one of them. It is much easier for me to believe that God wants us all to know and follow him -- so much so that he sacrificed his own son (John 3:16) -- but that we sinful humans don't all choose to love him back.

Because of my own theological choice to follow John Wesley's teaching, I want to do what I can to make sure all people have the opportunity to choose Jesus if they want to. I know that not everybody will, of course, but I want them to know the door is open for them to choose to enter. That means I am not afraid to socialize with Muslim refugees, drug addicts, homosexuals, rednecks, or any other people group who doesn't yet know Jesus as their savior. Someday my love for them and my kind actions might be just the thing that helps those broken, lost friends to walk through the door into a full-fledged relationship with Jesus.



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