Church Write-Up: Grace, God and Non-Believers, Divine Guidance, Gnosticism

I visited two churches last Sunday.  One was an African-American Baptist church.  The other was the evangelical church that I call the “Pen Church,” since I get a free pen there when I attend.  The sermons at both churches overlapped in the topics that they addressed: guidance by the Holy Spirit, water baptism as an act of obedience to God, the importance of immediate rather than delayed obedience, and the list goes on.  This was interesting, since, unlike the two churches that I attended a few Sundays ago, these churches were not using the same Scripture readings.  They just overlapped in their topics!

Here are some things that stood out to me, along with my responses.  I will call the preacher at the African-American Baptist church “Preacher A,” and the preacher at the Pen Church “Preacher B.”

A.  Preacher B was saying that God’s grace is free upon request, but that spiritual disciplines take effort.  Preacher A said that delayed obedience is not real obedience, and he quoted someone who said that disobedience to God undermines or rejects God’s grace.

I do not know what the person whom Preacher A quoted meant by that, or what Preacher A interpreted it to mean.  On the one hand, this is a Baptist church: it believes in once-saved-always-saved rather than thinking that Christians can lose their salvation through disobedience.  It tends to think that God disciplines disobedient believers rather than kicking them out of God’s family.  On the other hand, the pastor last week was preaching about the Book of Jude, saying that Jude was critical of those who appealed to God’s grace to excuse their willful sinfulness.  The pastor also quoted Hebrews 12:14, which exhorts, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (KJV).  According to the pastor, we will not get into heaven without living a holy life.

How does disobedience undermine or reject God’s grace?  I can guess.  It could mean that, when we sin, we stomp on the second chance that God has given us.  God has presumably given us a second chance so that we can become transformed into righteous people, and we obviate that goal when we are persistently disobedient.  It may mean that, by sinning, we reject God’s grace, if we define God’s grace as God’s assistance that enables us to live a righteous life.  The Holy Spirit graciously leads us one direction, and we choose to go in another.

I liked something that Preacher B said: that an essential part of owning our spiritual lives is recognizing our need for God’s grace.  I think that, here, he was defining grace as God’s unmerited favor.  We need God’s grace to be accepted by God, for we are imperfect.  This does not merely describe what was the case before I became a Christian, for it describes me now.

B.  Preacher A was conducting an altar call at the end of his sermon, but nobody came forward to accept Christ.  Preacher A was saying that we cannot be led by God, when we are not reconciled with God in Christ, and when we lack God’s Holy Spirit within us.  We get those benefits when we accept Christ into our life.  Preacher A also said that sinners without Christ are not sick people who need to be healed; they are spiritually dead people who need to be spiritually resurrected (see Ephesians 2:1-7; Colossians 2:13).

Preacher B, similarly, was saying that our sins created a vast gulf between us and God, and that was why Christ became a human and suffered.  His implication, presumably, is that we need to believe in Christ to close that gulf between us and God.

Does God have nothing to do with non-believers, in terms of guiding them and spiritually transforming them?  I have wrestled with that question on this blog before: see “Does God Hear Non-Believers?” and “Does God Only Hear Christians’ Prayers?”  I agree with some of what I wrote, and I disagree with other parts.  In terms of where I disagree, I have more optimism about God’s presence in my life now than I did back then, as I depend on God continually to help me through my negative mindset.

I struggle somewhat with the idea that non-believers are spiritually dead.  I know non-believers who seem to have a genuine love for social justice: who care about people who are in need or who are oppressed or exploited.  They do good things for other people.  Are they perfect?  No, but are they spiritually DEAD?  Of course, there are Christians who have their answers to my question.  They would say that non-believers have God’s common grace, which prevents them from utterly degenerating into their depravity.  Or they say that “Total Depravity” does not mean that non-believers are as bad as they can be, but rather than they are flawed: that even the good that they feel and do is corrupted.  Some Christians of the non-Calvinist variety interpret “dead in trespasses and sin” in Ephesians 2:1-7 and Colossians 2:13, not in reference to human nature and whether it is able to will and to do good (on some level), but in reference to God’s death penalty for sin: we sin, and we deserve death as a result.  Ephesians 2:1-7, however, seems to refer to both: people apart from Christ did bad things on account of their passions, and they deserve God’s wrath (but Christ has delivered believers from that by lifting them up to spiritual places).

I am writing myself into a pit here, so I will move on to the next item.

C.  Preacher A was likening God’s guidance to driving a certain kind of car, which automatically moves people to where they are supposed to be when they are veering off course.  (Don’t ask me for more information on this, as I know little about cars!)  He seemed to be advocating being fully led by the Holy Spirit.  He may have acknowledged a role for the human will, though, for he stressed obedience to God.

Preacher B was saying that humans need to do their part, and God will usually not do for them what they can already do by themselves.  God answers prayers, but we need to pray.  God stores God’s word in our hearts, but we need to read it.

Preacher B made another point.  He said that God chooses to speak to us in a whisper (I Kings 19:12), rather than booming at us from a distance, because we need to be closer to God to hear God’s whisper.  God desires intimacy with us.  The pastor then told us about the times that God whispered to him since he became a Christian as a child.

D.  Preacher A was primarily focusing on the Book of Colossians, and he was talking about Gnosticism, against which the author of Colossians was supposedly inveighing.  He was probably relying on a reference book in describing Gnosticism.  He said that Gnosticism repudiated Genesis 1 in claiming that God did not create the cosmos, but that is not entirely accurate: Valentinian Gnosticism believed in Genesis 1 but thought that the creator was a sinister (or just, depending on the writing) sub-deity.  There is debate within scholarship about the category of Gnosticism, but I do not want to get entangled in that in this post.

I was wondering what exactly was at stake, when it came to ancient Christians’ opposition to Gnosticism.  The pluralist part of me wondered what was so wrong with accepting Gnosticism, as long as a person lived a good, moral life.  Christians have said that Gnosticism is wrong because physicality matters: God loves matter and will renew the physical cosmos.  Gnosticism, by contrast, tended to devalue matter as evil, stressing that humans were spirits trapped inside of bodies; they hoped for liberation from the material.  Some took this in ascetic directions, and some in libertine directions.  Is asceticism necessarily wrong, though?  Maybe it is, if it becomes a legalistic requirement.  Gnosticism also may not be good for the environment, since it devalues matter.  But one would think that Christians rejected Gnosticism due to larger issues that were at stake.

Preacher B was talking about the importance of Christ’s suffering.  Christ did not simply become a human to hang out, he said, but Christ came to suffer for our sins.  Preacher A had said that Gnosticism rejected Jesus’ incarnation and the sufficiency of Christ.  Perhaps that is why Christians rejected Gnosticism: they believed that it contradicted the truth, as they understood it.  They thought that Christ, in Christ’s incarnation, suffering, and resurrection, brought life, and Gnosticism, in rejecting that, was rejecting life.  For ancient Christians who came to be considered “orthodox,” the Gnostics were on the wrong road.

But I wonder: did they also believe that there were practical negative effects of Gnosticism, as a belief system?  There are Christians who say that atheism has practical negative effects in that it eliminates a firm foundation for morality.  There are atheists who say that theism has bad practical effects in that it keeps people in a state of childishness.  These critiques have nothing to do with the truth of the belief systems but rather look at their supposed practical effects.  Did Christians make practical criticisms of Gnosticism?

 

 

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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