Christless Christianity

A couple of days ago, I came across a quote attributed to William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, that got me thinking and agonizing (although likely nowhere near enough): “The chief danger of the 20th century will be religion without the Holy Spirit, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, and heaven without hell.” It occurred to me that Booth’s observation can equally be applied to the twenty first century and indeed any century in the Christian era, and we who claim to be Christ’s followers should take heed personally and let the truth of the Christian message be known.

I suppose Christless Christianity has always been with us, and by this I mean: we pay lip service to the teachings of Christ but when it comes to the nitty gritty of what Christ requires of us, we are found wanting. I say this without wanting to appear judgmental, knowing that I need to take out any speck that happens to be in my eye before pointing out the plank that is in my brother’s eye. But as Christianity becomes increasingly marginalized, the danger that Booth foretold is as great now as it ever was. For those of us who are ministers or similar, we are naturally exercised about all too evident declining church attendances and Christian influence and among other things we may be drawn to present Christianity in a more attractive way.

Please don’t misunderstand me on this point, Christ who is the centre of Christianity (or at least should be) is the chiefest among ten thousand and is altogether lovely (as it says in Song of Solomon) along with so many other wonderful attributes, and those of us who get to preach should be proclaiming the pre-eminence of Christ in all things, the all sufficient Saviour and the all conquering Lord, the one we would want to point people to. But there is a real danger that in trying to appease an indifferent or antagonistic audience we compromise too much by saying things people want to hear and not saying what they don’t want to hear. At the same time, the need of the hour is for those of us, who are Christ’s followers, to be authentic in our witness (both words and deeds). Sometimes, we can not but avoid giving offence, but it needs to be right reasons.

A number of things have triggered this line of thought starting with some recent conversations. One was with a newcomer to my town who wanted to find a church to join. He came across one popular church that might have fitted the bill. He went away disillusioned because while the preacher made much about God’s love, he said nothing about sin and the need for repentance. In another conversation, I was told by a worker of a Christian charity doing much needed social work in his community, who were recently told they would no longer be funded by the local authority as they were too Christian in their outlook. My take on the first conversation is it is regrettable that there is a reluctance in too many quarters to preach the gospel in its entirety in case it might offend some. As I have argued elsewhere in my website this should begin with the message of the righteousness of God, which encompasses justice as well as love, and includes his hatred of sin and our need to repent, rather than the love of God, as important that is. As for the Christian charity, my counsel would normally be to hold your nerve rather than succumb to dumbing down of your aims. While your service is for those of all faiths and none, and it is not about proselytising per se, you cannot apologise for your Christian ethos and belief that there is spiritual element to the work you are trying to do, particularly, as was applicable here, freeing people from addictions.

This brings me to a book that I am currently reading: “Space for Grace” by Giles Goddard. Because Giles is more liberally inclined, theologically speaking, than I am, I might be expected to disagree. In fact there was a lot I agreed with him on and found some of his observations refreshingly insightful. If I were to try to put into a nutshell his main message, it seemed to me it had a lot to do with inclusion and that the church needed to be an inclusive community and had to be open to fundamental change to achieve this end. Even with this challenge, I am still inclined to the view that he has a valid point. Given some of my own experiences in recent years, I have observed “non-churchy” types being turned off by stuff going on that has little to do with the gospel. I have seen liberals doing more on the “love thy neighbor” front than those who can dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s when it comes to doctrine. I have seen gay folk getting the message of social justice in a way that far surpasses many a fundamentalist. At the end of our lives, whatever group we may be aligned with, we need to give and account of our actions before God.

And there is a but … I write this in the middle of Holy Week. Today is Tuesday. The previous Sunday we thought of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, proclaimed as Israel’s Messiah. On Thursday, we see him washing his disciples’ feet and celebrating the Passover with them before going to the Garden of Gethsemane and praying his “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” prayer. Then on Friday, having been arrested, he was mocked, beaten and humiliated and put to death on the cross. Then on Sunday, Easter day, Jesus rises from the death, victorious. The whole message of Easter, especially concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus, is right at the centre of the Christian message. Jesus had to die because only he can pay the price for our sin. But we need to respond in repentance and faith, and then to cling to the Saviour and follow him with every ounce of breath we have, and do so to the glory of God. While all sorts of things get in the way, and there are many other calls on us, this in essence is the message we need to proclaim.

We live in a world gone crazy and it is difficult, humanly speaking, to know where to turn. I write this in the light of today’s news of yet another major terrorist attack, this time in Brussels. There are major political storms such as UK’s place in Europe and how to balance the budget while protecting the poor. There are huge environmental challenges. There are trouble spots throughout the word that can so easily escalate, the unresolved Middle East refugee crisis and, closer to home, increase in homelessness. It is at a time such as this we need to firstly live the gospel by being Jesus to this world but we need to also proclaim it, with Jesus at the centre. Going back to General Booth’s remarks, we need to be empowered by God’s Holy Spirit. We need to live for Christ. We need to repent and find forgiveness. We need to proclaim the message of new life in Christ. We must do this with one ultimate aim in mind – the glory of God. We have to remember there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun.

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