Heresies I sometimes secretly want to believe: 1. Universalism

I grew up reading C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series. I loved it then, and I love it now. One of the many great things about these children’s books are the way in which they, through the genre of fantasy, convey some great truths about the gospel.

For Christian readers, perhaps the most controversial part of the series comes in the final book, The Last Battle, particularly in exchange between a character called Aslan (kind of like the Narnian Jesus), and Emeth (a disciple of Tash, the devil character) in the Narnian heaven. Here it is:

“…the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, “Son, thou art welcome.’ But I said, ‘Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.’ He answered, ‘Child all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.’ Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, “Lord, is it true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?’ The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, “It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites – I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him….”

It goes on a bit more, but the gist is – all the worship that Emeth has done towards Tash is counted as if towards Aslan, and thus Emeth will spend eternity with Aslan.

It’s a lovely thought – Emeth may have been misguided in worshiping the devil-like Tash, but the way he conducted himself and the good service he did mean that he too, like the followers of Aslan, can go to heaven.

I sometimes secretly want to believe this is the case in real life. That followers of other things – people who reverently worship in a different religion, or live reverently in their unbelief of God – can go to heaven. After all, God is more concerned with the attitude than anything else, isn’t he?

If this is the case, there’s no need for me to evangelise people who are living well in their own particular faiths. Which is great, because the world is telling me that if it’s working for them, I should just let them be.

If this is the case, then the way we worship is more important than the direction of our worship.

 

Universalism

But it’s not the case! This notion fits into a heresy known as universalism. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a universalist as “One who holds, esp. member of an organised body of Christians who hold, that all mankind will eventually be saved.”

Probably this heresy has proved so popular because it sounds quite nice. If we believe it, we don’t have to think about a God who damns people to hell, and we can let people of other religions get on with living their lives, safe in the knowledge that if they do a good job in serving their god, it will be counted as service to the real God anyway, and we’ll all end up in heaven together in the end.

But it’s not true.

The thing is, the direction of our worship does matter. A lot. 

 

The Old Testament

In the Old Testament, the Israelites often wandered from God and began to worship other beings. God takes huge issue with this. In the Ten Commandments, he says:

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” – Exodus 20:4-6 (ESV)

It’s something of a weird idea, God being jealous. But the point is, it is right and proper that God’s people – people saved by him – worship him, and him alone. God doesn’t say “Don’t make an idol, unless you worship it really well, then it’s okay because it’s only the attitude that matters.” God is a relational God, and so he is upset when people worship anything other than him.

Think of it in terms of a marriage. If a married man loves and serves his mistress, does that count as service to his wife? Of course not! He’s totally disregarded the person he should be loving and serving – his wife – and the way he treats his mistress is largely irrelevant. If he was serving and loving his wife, he wouldn’t have a mistress.

In the Old Testament book of Hosea, God uses a metaphor of marriage to describe the way his people have sinned against him. He describes them as an adulterous wife:

For their mother has played the whore;
she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers,
who give me my bread and my water,
my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink…
…she did not know
that it was I who gave her
the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and who lavished on her silver and gold,
which they used for Baal'”. – 
Hosea 2:5,8

At the end of the day, adultery is adultery, and idolatry is idolatry. God didn’t count the Israelite’s idol-worship as worship of him, because it wasn’t – in fact it was the opposite. It was a total rejection of him and what he’d done, as they built statues and claimed they were their gods.

Or think of it in terms of war. In a battle, what is ultimately more important – how good you are at fighting, or whose side you are on? If you lose the battle, I doubt the enemy would say “you fought on the other side, but that’s okay because you did a good job – we’ll let you share in our victory”!

Serving well means nothing if you are serving the wrong person.

Who you serve is more important than how you serve.

 

The New Testament

It’s much the same when we come to the New Testament. Again, who people follow is so much more important than the way they do the following. 

In John 14:6, Jesus puts it bluntly: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus clearly states that the only way people can be saved, can be reconciled to God the Father, is through trusting in him, and him alone.

If Jesus had taught that the way to salvation was simply worshiping whatever you worship with a reverent heart, then I doubt people would have had a problem with him. I doubt the Jewish leaders would have plotted to kill him, and I doubt the followers of Jesus would have faced the persecution that they did, and still continue to do today. It is Jesus’ exclusive claim that he is the only Saviour that was, and is, so scandalous.

After Jesus died, rose again and ascended to heaven, his followers continued to proclaim that salvation is found in Jesus, and Jesus alone. In Acts 4:11-12, they say:

“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” 

From there, the gospel is proclaimed to everyone – including those who are reverently following their own religion or moral code. The followers of Jesus correctly understood that people are saved, not by living a good life, but by trusting in the only one who can save them – Jesus Christ, the Lord.

 

Where to from here?

First up, don’t go and burn all your C.S. Lewis books. Despite portraying some powerful truths in a vivid way, I don’t think we can take all aspects of The Chronicles of Narnia as “gospel”. Lewis himself said was more of suppositional than allegorical. And whether or not Lewis himself believed in universalism, I think he undoubtedly has a lot of great things to say about Jesus and Christianity.

When I read The Last Battle I sometimes secretly wish it was true – that good works done in a different direction are ultimately counted as service to God, and therefore people can be saved. But:

  • Salvation does not depend on what we do! The bible teaches that we are so thoroughly sinful, that we have no hope of being saved on our own merit. It’s only through the cross – through God sending his sinless Son to die in our place, that we can be saved. By grace alone we are saved.
  • God is a relational God, and a jealous God. As such, whether or not we serve him and his Son Jesus is a much more important question than how we well we serve anything.
  • As a Christian, I don’t pick and choose my beliefs based on what I like. Instead, I believe the truth that God has revealed to us, through his word, the Bible. Sometimes I secretly want to believe heresies like universalism, and yet that’s not what the Bible says. Ultimately, I need to be listening to and trusting in the real God, the real Jesus, and not the Jesus I make up in my head. Christianity is not about choosing what’s comfortable to believe – it’s about believing the truth.

People are saved, not based on what they do, but who they trust in. And salvation is only found in Jesus Christ. So my aim should be to trust in him, and him alone, and to point others to him.

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Find your ‘why’

 

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(Note: this article was originally published in “The Page”, the weekly newsletter of UOW’s Evangelical Christian Union

‘Find Your Why’ – it’s one of those marketing taglines that our Uni likes to use, along with ‘UOW Stands for Purpose’ (which it doesn’t, by the way – UOW stands for University of Wollongong!)

Like all good marketing guff, it’s pretty vague. But I think it’s saying come to uni, find your purpose in life. What sort of purpose to life might you find at uni? Here’s so what some students seem to think:

  • Get a degree, to get a good-paying job and make some money.
  • To be equipped to make a difference to the world
  • To have fun and make some great friends
  • To learn more about the world
  • To work out what the heck to do with the rest of my life.

If you’re a Christian – someone who trusts in Jesus as King and Saviour – then you’ve already found your why! It’s to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

In Colossians 3, the apostle Paul writes:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

If we’re people who trust in Jesus, then our purpose in life as we wait for Jesus to return is to set our minds on Jesus. To focus on what will last into eternity.

This will then impact how we spend our time at Uni. We’ll still spend time learning and studying (hopefully) and having fun. But maybe we’ll also do things like come to Uni Bible Talks each week, meet with fellow Christians in faculty groups, and look for opportunities to share the good news about Jesus with others. There’s value in learning, getting a job and enjoying life, but these things are transient. First and foremost, let’s set our mind on things above.

Here at the Evangelical Christian Union our vision statement is to “Proclaim Jesus at University to present everyone mature in him.” It’s a vision that’s based on Paul’s own words in Colossians 1:28. That’s what we’re on about – proclaiming Jesus in order to bring about mature believers who trust in Jesus and live for him. We proclaim Jesus as his word is preached each week in bible talks, as we read and discuss it in faculty groups, and as we share Jesus with others.

If you’re a Christian, we’d love you to join us in this mission.

If you’re not a Christian, or are still figuring things out, it’s great to have you here today! Uni is a great opportunity to learn new things, and we’d love you to find more about Jesus and the purpose he gives to life.

 

Sam is in his final year of a double degree in Arts / Communication and Media Studies. He enjoys amateur theatre, playing various musical instruments, and eating chocolate. Sam is currently serving as ECU’s President, and leads our student committee.

Lessons from Trump about how (not) to be a Christian.

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As I write, it’s looking like Donald Trump will be the next President of the USA. That’s terrifying.

There’s so much I don’t like about Donald Trump, it’s hard to know where to begin. But I think one of the major issues I have with him is that he represents almost everything I least like about Christians. And I say that as a Christian myself.

Trump has called himself “Presbyterian”, “Protestant” and according to James Dobson, he has “accepted a relationship with Jesus Christ as his Savior”.

But he’s hypocritical, selfish, racist, misogynistic, and it seems very much like he just uses the label “Christian” in order to serve his own purposes. Trump seems to embody the criticisms most often leveled at Christians, and I’m quite worried about what a Trump Presidency would do in turning people against Christianity.

While I could easily rant on about how terrible Trump is and how fundamentally un-Christian he really is, I thought I’d take a more positive tact. No Christians are perfect, and whether or not Donald Trump really is a Christian, I think there are a few things we can learn from Trump about how (not) to be a follower of Christ.

 

1Christianity leaves no room for racism. 

Trump has used anti-Mexican rhetoric to gain support, refused to renounce the support of KKK, repeatedly questioned whether Obama was born in the USA, shown a pattern of discrimination towards African-Americans and referred to Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists”.

But the way of Christianity is very different. The New Testament recounts how Jesus Christ came, not just for people of a certain race, but for Jews and Gentiles and everyone who calls upon his name.

Paul writes in Romans 10:12:  “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.”

Sadly, Christians have been racist in the past, and some are today. But the message of the gospel is one for all nations – meaning there is no room for racism. All are created in the image of God, and all who call on Jesus will be saved, regardless of their race or where they  were born.

 

2. The Christian call is one of caring for others, not oneself – a call of love, not hate. 

Trump’s rallying cry might have been to “make America great again”, but it seems like his campaign has been all about him gaining more power. He’s been very quick to criticise and ridicule those who oppose him and even those who have supported him, all in the name of gaining more power for himself.

What a contrast to the way of Jesus Christ.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul urges the church there to put others before themselves:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Instead of pulling others down to build ourselves up, let’s serve each other. As Christians, let’s follow the lead of Christ – and put others before ourselves.

 

3. Christianity affirms that women are created in the image of God.

Perhaps the most outrageous of Trump’s comments are those that he’s directed towards women. His “locker-room talk” has suggested that he views women as subordinates, as objects for him to grab.

But Christianity teaches a very different view of women. In Genesis, women are spoken of as being created in the image of God. Women were the first witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. And in the epistles, Paul writes:

  • “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” – Ephesians 5:25
  • “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers,  older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” – 1 Timothy 5:1-2

 The New Testament shows that women are not simply objects for men’s own gratification. Instead, wives are to be genuinely and sacrifically loved by their husbands, and women are to be treated as sisters, in all purity.

It seems to me that Trump’s comments towards women are completely incompatible with the way of Christ.

 

4. Christianity is about more than just words.

Being a Christian would be oh-so-easy if all it involved was wearing a name badge, or ticking a box in the census. But the bible affirms that in response to what Christ has done, Christians should live lives consistent with what they believe.

1 John 3:18 says “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

Trump has said he is a Christian. But the mark of a Christian is not just someone who says they are one. Christians are called to follow Christ’s example in living for him, in living a life of love for God and for others. And yes, Christians will fail at this. But nonetheless, Christians are called to live out their faith, not just give it lip-service.

 

5. Christianity at its core, involves asking God for forgiveness.

Trump made headlines last year for claiming that he sees no need to ask God for forgiveness. And perhaps here we see Trump’s greatest misunderstanding of Christianity.

Because asking God for forgiveness is what Christianity is all about. It’s about admitting that we are sinful, that we’re hopeless without him. We’re evil people, doing evil things, with no chance for redemption…apart from Jesus Christ.

This was the message of John the Baptist – he called people to repent of their sins and ask for forgiveness. On the road to Emmasus, the resurrected Jesus told two of his followers: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:46-48)

And at Pentecost, Peter told the assembly:Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

Being a Christian means admitting that you’re a thoroughly flawed and sinful human being. It means asking God for forgiveness, and trusting in him alone to save us from our rightful punishment. He is the only one who saves.

***

I find the prospect of Trump being our next President horrifying. And partly because I’m worried it about the damage Trump will continue to do to the way the world sees Christians, who already are perceived as hateful and hypocritical by so many.

But at the same time, I believe God is sovereign. This world has had worse leaders, and no matter how bad things look, a huge comfort of Christianity is knowing that God is in control.

And let’s continue to point out how Trump is not living out the way of the Christian. But let’s not neglect the logs in our own eyes. Let’s press on to becoming more like Christ, as his Holy Spirit works within us, as we live in response to his love and grace that he has so generously given to us.

 

(P.S. I’m usually pretty reluctant to comment on political issues, but sometimes needs must. And yes, Hilary Clinton is a thoroughly flawed human too. As we all are.)

Who does the ministry at ECU?

The staff? The student committee?

Sometimes we can get into the trap of thinking gospel work is best left to the professionals. After all, they often have more training, experience, time and authority.

But the goal of the full-time bible teacher is the same as that of the Christian university student: to proclaim Jesus to present everyone mature in him.

In Ephesians 4, Paul writes about the gifts Jesus has given the church: “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and the teachers.” And the purpose of these gifts, he says, is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood…”. So the purpose of the apostles, shepherds and teachers is not just to teach the gospel, but also equip all the saints (all Christians) for ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.

All Christians are called to be bodybuilders – not of their own bodies, but of the body of Christ. Paul goes on to write “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”.

And the writer of Hebrews likewise urges Christians to “exhort one another every day” and to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together…but encouraging one another”. Every Christian is called to encourage their brothers and sisters in their faith. To minister to each other.

And not just to Christians. In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul unpacks how he tries to remove unnecessary obstacles to the gospel, in order to bring people to Jesus. He writes “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

So all Christians are to minister the gospel to their fellow Christians and those who don’t yet know Christ. As Colin Marshall and Tony Payne put it in their brilliant book The Trellis and the Vine, “The New Testament envisages that all Christians disciples will be prayerful speakers of God’s word, in a multitude of different ways and contexts.”

Those on our AFES staff team and our student committee may have different responsibilities, but we are all ministers of the gospel.

Here’s some ideas of what ministry might look like for us as students serving Jesus on campus. As important and valuable as our studies in Arts, Science, Engineering and Education are, these might just be one of the most important things you do in your years at UOW:

  • Reading the bible one-to-one with a younger student each week.
  • Having coffee with a friend who doesn’t yet know Jesus and sharing your faith.
  • Reading ‘Uncover’ (Luke’s gospel) with a friend.
  • Being part of a faculty group and encouraging others to grow in Christ and serve Christ.

All those who have been impacted by the gospel are to share the gospel – with each other, and with those who don’t know it yet. “Proclaiming Jesus at university” should be the goal for all of us who trust in Jesus.

 

Sam is a fourth-year English Literature, History and Journalism student. He also works part-time for a PR firm and enjoys acting, music, coffee and board games. He was recently elected President of ECU.

NOTE: This article was originally published for the weekly bulletin of UOW’s Evangelical Christian Union, The Page. 

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Talk – Singing at church

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I recently preached at my church, Mittagong Anglican, on the topic of ‘Singing at church’. Part of a series on Spiritual Consistencies, the talk briefly went through an overview of singing in the bible, before asking three questions, particularly in reference to Colossians 3:16:

  1. Why should we sing at church?
  2. What should we sing at church?
  3. How should we sing at church?

You can listen to a recording of the talk here.