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Why “radical” Christianity is just another form of legalism

You know, it never fails that theology within Christianity always tends to go from one extreme to the other.  I see this in the “radical” movement” championed by the likes of Francis Chan, David Platt, Shane Claiborne and so on, which is really a reactionary movement to the materialistic, business-driven nature of modern churches in America today.  (Props to Rick Warren for his part in reducing salvation into a seeker-sensitive consumer good by the way.)

Being “radical” is a new spin on an old concept rooted in the social gospel, and this particular iteration weighs one’s faith based on the frugality of one’s lifestyle, how much of his assets he gives away, or how much he dedicates his life to missionary work.  There are different shades of this within the movement, but to me this is the underlying premise.  It also creates a great deal of confusion, because there’s no clear rule in how much works is sufficient enough to indicate to a believer (and the leaders of this movement) that he is truly saved.  Or regenerated, to use a calvinist term.  Do we all need to have our teeth pulled out like the missionary Francis Chan uses as an example of “crazy love”?  Chan himself says no, but you still get the impression that if you’re not giving in an equally “radical” fashion, well then, you’re probably not really saved.

Pharisee Points Accusingly

Are YOU being radical enough???

The can of worms this opens up should be obvious.  Whereas in Catholicism one does good works to GET saved, under the “radical” theology one does works to PROVE they’re saved.  And if you’re not doing “enough” of it based on some kind of arbitrary standard no one can seem to agree on, your own salvation starts to come into question, and either you’re saddled with a sense of endless guilt for not doing “enough” for the kingdom, or you’d likely have to deal with a congregation of  holier-than-thous who frown on you because you’re not living in a hut in India.

I get the sense that to support the assertions behind “radical” theology, the proponents often point to the book of James, and his repeated admonishment that faith without works is dead.  When I read James though, I believe he’s talking about something more, and by works he’s not merely talking about good deeds in particular: he’s talking about the EVIDENCE of faith.

This much is clear when he talks of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Isaac. (James 2:21-24)  Was any good work being performed here?  Was Abraham giving everything he had to the poor or spreading the gospel in distant lands?  No, he was about to kill his only son, believing God would raise him from the dead (otherwise it would mean the Lord’s promise to Abraham regarding his seed would turn out to be a lie – Genesis 12:7)  Abraham’s works here was OBEDIENCE based on his now immovable belief in God’s promises. (Romans 4:3-5)  His faith was tried, but it came forth as gold, because he ultimately believed the LORD would revive his son.

There seems to be a lot about the nature of salvation that calvinists like Platt/Chan/etc. don’t seem to understand.  I remember having a discussion with a friend about the sinner’s prayer, and I initially agreed with the opinion that it wasn’t a magic, superstitious prayer that could cause one to be automatically saved.  But then I reflected further on this, and I realized we were of completely different minds on this after all.  I believed that such a prayer must first be coupled with faith, as in, you have to honestly believe what you’re praying, and if you did, you became saved.  As long as that person believed, nothing more than such a prayer in faith was needed to receive the gift of salvation.  But instead my friend indicated salvation itself was a sort of “process.”  Um no, it’s not a process.  You are either saved or you’re not.  There is no process.  Salvation is a rebirth, the start of a new man in Christ, and just as it is with our physical lives, we don’t immediately become spiritually mature and perfect in faith at the moment we’re saved.  It’s the sanctification of faith that becomes a lifelong process, but in that, our salvation was already obtained at the moment we started believing.  As much as the likes of Chan would like to resist this fact, there IS such a thing as an immature believer.  (yoooooohoooooooo! *waves*)

This is why I find this whole radical, missional form of Christianity so off-putting.  It’s no longer about honoring the LORD and doing such biblically-based good works simply because it’s the right thing to do (we get nothing out of it other than the satisfaction that we made the LORD happy),  but for appearance’s sake, specifically to make a show of proof of our “regeneration.”  After all, faith without works is dead!  And yet for one thing, a significant aspect of good works (giving in particular) is supposed to be a private affair.  The LORD was in fact adamant about how secretive our good works should be, to the point that the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing.  (Matthew 6:3)  It occurred to me that just the fact of knowing the extent of how much Chan and Platt have given of their own selves is an indication that they are disobeying God’s word.  It does make you wonder.  Indeed, we sure seem to know an AWFUL lot of all the many good works these radical leaders perform.  Such holiness they exude!

I believe “radical” Christianity and “lordship salvation” introduces a new (and yet ancient) standard to faith and good works.  But how much does God himself require?  For starters, Jesus himself said a man who has faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.  (Matthew 17:20)  See this little “.” on your screen?  Yeah, about that size.

Think about that.  Imagine someone whose faith is only as small as a seed barely discernible to the naked eye.  Would he look like a spiritual giant to others?  Or is he more likely to appear as a backsliding Christian who shakes his fist at God for everything that’s gone wrong in his life?  And yet, there’s still a small part, a kernel of his being that cries out that Jesus is still LORD, despite all his personal failures, doubts and stingy tithes based on his net income instead of his gross.  (filthy heathen!!!)

But guess who else wavered between unshaking faith and doubt, doubt that was so embarassing at times that he allowed his wife the risk of commiting adultery because he feared for his life?  Abraham, of course.  And he does this not once, but TWICE.  Yet rather than judge Abraham, the LORD came to his rescue each time.  Imagine if you will, Abraham being a church goer and surrounded by his peers passionately pursuing the “radical” lifestyle, what they would have thought of him after those faithless blunders.  He would have been considered a backsliding, unregenerate soul, for sure.   Even worse, he had far too much sheep as well.  Why wasn’t he giving some of them away and living a more frugal lifestyle?  Clearly ungenerated, this one.

But what we see is not what God sees.  The Bible instructs us not to judge by appearance, but still, when it appears that someone is not doing a lot of good works, not giving as much as he should be, not going on missions all the time, not being RADICAL, and by all appearances looks like a materialistic, self absorbed Christian, well then by all appearances, he must not really be saved.  Right?  Right??

It creates a horrible environment that brings Christians back to the same legalistic standards by which we judge one’s holiness.  Everything old is new again.  Now you have well meaning believers who either feel needless and crushing guilt, doubting their salvation because they don’t feel like they’re doing “enough” for the kingdom, or are pressured into ministries that they are ill-equipped and ill-prepared for.

I admit, I’ve often felt this guilt too.  I don’t attend church, so I certainly don’t get involved in outreaches and ministries these churches offer.  And when I try to, I get blocked somehow, due to some of the sometimes ridiculous requirements in order to participate in relief work (such as requiring you to be a member of the church for 6 months(???)  And missionary work, OY.  The mere thought of visiting another country, especially given that I have a disability that I need to take into consideration has me less than… enthusiastic about doing any missionary work as well.

Does that mean I’m not saved?  Or hugely backslidden?  Or just all around a very bad, flesh based, self-absorbed, unregenerated weenie of a fake Christian?  Was God truly angry at my lack of good works, my lack of contributions to the church body, my utter failure to do anything meaningful for the kingdom, my unwillingess to be a RADICAL disciple?

When I pondered over that, I thought about the examples in Scripture of men who went on to become mighty men in the faith.  And I realized, a great deal of them had spent the majority of their lives doing… well, nothing.  Moses himself was a shepherd for 40 years, and was not called to lead over the Israelites until he was 80 years old (the equivalent of being 60 today.)  So many devout believers of the faith lived purely ordinary lives before they were directly called by God into his service, and often not until their later years.  One wonders what the likes of Chan and Platt would be telling Moses while he was spending all those years herding sheep and doing nothing else meaningful or “radical” for God.  Moses should have been overseeing a social program to fight hunger or SOMETHING, instead of wasting the best years of his life tending sheep.  How unradical.

Still, even as young as I am in comparison to the “mighty men of valor” from the Bible, I felt and even now still feel like a failure.  I did nothing good, nothing meaningful, nothing “radical,” and worse yet, I didn’t have the drive to do anything of the sort, nor the particular desire to part with my many toys and pursue a less materialistic lifestyle.  Was I in rampant sin just for having the latest iPhone and playing on my shiny iPad?  I thought about missionary work too, and whether I really did have an obligation to put myself out there, to travel overseas, to start reaching the lost in distant lands.  Was I failing God somehow?  Was He angry at me?  I prayerfully looked for answers.

At the same time I contemplated these things, I got this email from a believer in South Africa:

This is rather unconventional, but I just want to say thank you. I recently went through a very tough time and was at logger heads with God.
I thought he had forsaken me. Your blog post, “When God forsakes you” really gave me something to relate to. One of the comments which you replied to helped me to regain my faith in God. Apart from that, the book of Job in the Bible also helped me a ton.

Anyway, you’re my inspiration to create my own blog (something I never [thought] I’d develop the inclination to do). A blog where I can help people like myself face certain circumstances through my experiences with Christ.

So once again, thank you and God bless

When I read that, this verse immediately sprang to mind:

Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins. — James 5:19-20

I was amazed, that one blog post which consisted of a flailing rant (but afterward a repentant heart) had reached someone halfway around the world and helped her regain her faith.  I had performed a missionary’s work while hiding out in my man cave and throwing back a frosty Starbucks’ frappucino.  Behold the magnitude of God’s power, that even in my wanton excess of tasty coffee drinks and utter moments of despair, He was able to take my words and use it to edify another soul in some remote corner of the world.

It made me realize even in missionary/ministry work God requires so little: converting ONE person is enough to cover a multitude of sins.  ONE PERSON.  In an age where we esteem quantity over quality, it’s easy to forget that God’s burden truly is light in comparison.

Come unto me, all [ye] that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.  For my yoke [is] easy, and my burden is light. –  Matthew 11:28-30

Yet as men are apt to do, especially those who follow after the spirit of the Pharisees, we take God’s standards, and then introduce endless layers of legalistic requirements and burdens that only an elite few could possibly live up to.  We talk about proselytizing in distant lands as part of the “radical” lifestyle, without realizing that the Pharisees themselves were just as zealous in doing missionary work, and yet the LORD rebuked them:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves. – Matthew 23:15

The LORD tells us to go out into the world and preach the gospel, well, isn’t where we currently live part of the world?  And yet the concept of ministry/missionary work has been redefined and polluted to the extent that too many are now doing it without seeking the LORD’s direction, and for all the wrong reasons.  It may be that God has some other thing in mind for us, or that He wants us to get more grounded in Him first, before He calls us into something more.  If we cannot learn to hear His voice, then how can we learn to be effective in any ministry He gives us?

The more I observe about what I see emanating from mainstream Christianity, especially within calvinist circles, the more I realize they are the modern day equivalent of Pharisees.  The similarities are striking, and just as the religious elite existed at the time of Christ, so will they continue to exist today, influencing and leading many astray until the time of Christ’s return.  The onus is on us not to accept the word of man and the religious ecosystem they represent over what the Bible directly tells us.  (Jeremiah 17:5)

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