Monday, January 25, 2010

Magic Words

Last year a classmate and I began meeting regularly with some kids whom we had met in a tutoring program through the medical school. These kids come from a pretty rough neighborhood in San Bernardino and are not Christians so it has been a great opportunity and privilege to become friends with them and to share the gospel with them. For the last year and a half we have done almost weekly Bible studies with them.

After a time living in Tijuana these kids returned recently and we met with them again for the first time in months. To our most recent Bible study one of the kids brought a friend whom we had never met. After we discussed the stoning of Stephen and the conversion of Saul we began talking about what it meant for Jesus to die on the cross. When we said that Jesus had taken upon Himself our sin and had suffered the wrath that we deserved this boy was excited to hear something he had never heard before. We were excited that one of these kids was showing such interest in what we were teaching. We talked some more about the cross and this boy seemed amazed by the idea that Jesus took upon Himself our sin and that it was because of this that he suffered and died. He said that he could never understand what was so important about Jesus dying on a cross as opposed to every other person who has been executed in various ways throughout history.

After the discussion we were walking back to the car and the boy who had been amazed by this "new teaching" said that he had been in a lot of churches with his family and that he had "accepted Christ" again and again but he was obviously unsatisfied and unconvinced that he had really "accepted" anything. We told him that he should think about what we said about Christ taking upon Himself our sin and suffering the wrath we deserved. We also shared 2nd Corinthians 5:21, "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God," with him and tried to discuss that. He said he would come study the Bible with us again and I look forward to future conversations and, Lord willing, discipleship with this kid.

But the lack of satisfaction in this boy and the amazement he showed at the idea that Christ bore our sin reminded me of how concealed and forgotten the gospel is in most churches. This boy had been going up during alter calls and saying the "magic words" but he knew that nothing had happened. I think without an understanding of the atonement and a clear, scriptural teaching of it, the idea of "accepting Christ," the reality of conversion itself, is reduced to some "magic words." Perhaps this boy suffered some real conviction of sin - I believe he has - but no answer has ever been given him about what must be done about this sin - about what has already been done with his sin if he is to believe. This boy knew the "magic words," but he did not know what Christ had actually done. The words had no real content except that somehow he was maybe arbitrarily better off with God if he went up and "accepted Christ." But when "accepting Christ" is emptied of all theological content in regards to who Jesus is and what He has done then it is useless.

Here's what the great preacher A.W. Tozer had to say:

But accepting Christ has become the panacea all over the evangelical world and it has become fatal to millions! A whole attitude of accepting; the passive acceptance of Christ. This easy acceptance! A man will preach a tremendous sermon and then say "Now, what should you do? Accept Christ. Have you accepted Christ?" Or we go to the bedside of a dying man: "Have you accepted Christ?" And if he says he has, why, we pat his head and the next day or two we preach that he's in heaven twanging a harp. Well, now I'm awfully afraid that there are millions of people who are perishing because they are being told to accept Christ and they don't know what's meant by it...

...Somebody suggested that the cross of Christ should not inconvenience people. Well, it is the most inconvenient thing in the world, this cross of Christ! It took a man by the name of Jesus in the height of his healthy human life and took Him out on a hillside and killed Him there - now, that's an inconvenient thing for Him! And any cross is inconvenient; it's a most inconvenient thing, this accepting Christ, if we know what we mean by it. But the accepting Christ of popular theology has no inconvenience attached to it.

-A.W. Tozer, from his sermon, What It Means to Accept Christ


Jane said...

Tozer says, "But accepting Christ has become the panacea all over the evangelical world and it has become fatal to millions!" and
"Well, now I'm awfully afraid that there are millions of people who are perishing because they are being told to accept Christ and they don't know what's meant by it..."

Bonhoffer makes this point that we must not seek "cheap grace" that is not what God is offering.

As over 35 yrs of Christian life with good teachers, we are struggling in the Seattle area because of this very problem of "cheap grace". The lack of deep teaching causes so many problems in this Bible church we attend such as "I hope I am saved, I hope I don't lose my salvation, I don't know if I believe the whole thing. etc" What is worse, elders and deacons are fostering this very teaching and won't explore the doctrinal issues that bring a deeper sanctification that comes after the gift of salvation. Our concern is for the people who are perishing because cheap grace does not take us through the struggles that sanctification uses to build our faith.

Pray for the Church Universal that God would call all of us to a deeper understand of the Truth of our relationship in Him.

Matt Perkins said...

Hey Jane, thanks for the comment. Sounds like you are in an interesting situation. I don't think it's always bad for people to wrestle with whether or not they are really saved - I think it's part of working out your salvation with "fear and trembling." And when it comes to doctrinal issues for deeper sanctification after salvation I think it's important always to have the gospel central and learn deeper truths about the gospel which I think propel to sanctification.

Anonymous said...

What about all of the suffering that Jesus endured in Gethsemane? While the apostles slept, the Savior prayed to the Father that this cup be removed from him and sweated blood. How do you feel this correlates with the experience of crucifixion? Really, this was the generic death penalty of the day. Hundreds of thousands of people have been crucified, only One suffered in Gethsemane.

Matt Perkins said...

Hey anonymous, not sure what background you're coming from. The only places that I've seen where the claim that the atonement happened in Gethsemane are the cult of Mormonism and an unfortunate addition to the creed by Takkinen where he added the words "in Gethsemane" after "He descended into Hell" in the Nicene Creed.

I will only say this, I will not dishonor my Lord's suffering on the cross where He cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" by saying that Gethsemane is everything and the cross is nothing as you seem to suggest. Nor will I underestimate His suffering in Gethsemane by saying that Gethsemane was nothing because the cross is everything.

Jacob M. Aho said...

your response is
truly profound.

Jake Aho

Ed said...

To anonymous:

"It was precisely in order to be able to die that He had taken a body, and to prevent the death would have been to impede the resurrection."

St. Athanasius of Alexandria, fourth century

If you somehow believe that the amount of Christ's suffering or humiliation (as if such things are even logically quantifiable) in some way was what made the difference regarding the salvation of mankind, you're fundamentally misunderstanding Christian teaching. The very instant the Word of God clothed himself in mortal flesh, the victory was won, it was only a matter of his, now inevitable, entrance into human death. To return to Holy Athanasius:

"Through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word's indwelling in a single human body, the corruption that goes with death has lost its power over all."

(Tragically, this is also why the damned cannot be annihilated, because to be annihilated, they would have to cease to be (or have ever been) human beings.)

Jacob M. Aho said...


Your response was "Layer
speak", it went right
over the top of head
like a poorly, overthrown
football. Make it a little
more concise and I might
be able to fully grasp
what you are attempting to

Ed said...


I'm afraid I cannot throw the football properly until I understand where my receiver stands. There is no such thing as a universally identifiable symbol, and so there are no words with which I can address every soul. (This of course makes internet communication often very difficult.)

However, to apologetically give you more "layer speak" (for which I apologize, but there is really nothing at all that we every understand that is not itself layered in other levels of understanding or misunderstanding), there is a universal Word, who created all things and should be at least partially recognizable to all people.

This Word, the early Christians believed and I believe, was God, but was not in himself the whole of Divinity. Because he was God, he was also the invincible Author of Life. To put it in a deeper layer, "in him was life, and that life was the light of men."

To cut a lot out of the story, human beings die. This was not the Word's intention from the foundation of the world. The solution to the problem came by the Word's taking on the human nature, and thus infusing the whole of humanity with a part of the unconquerable life of God.

Thus, when Jesus, which is the human name which the Word took to himself, died, the human nature did what it normally does, but the divine nature, which cannot be killed, persisted. Human death thus became fused to divine life, and so was overthrown. (This is why I said above that the annihilation of a human person is impossible. We were not naturally immortal, but due to the operation of the Divine Word, no human being will ever now cease to be.)

So you see, it was not a matter of the manner of his death or of his suffering (though these things were the way they were for very important purposes as well), it was a matter of his death itself. This was what paved the way for human immortality.

In any case, it's possible that none of that was at all comprehensible to you, or, on the reverse, that all of it was easily comprehensible.

But for the record, the man trying to throw you a pass is an Orthodox Christian (here's a wikipedia article on it, though I don't know if it's any good and I have to go to work so I can't read it:

Anonymous said...

Hi Matt and Ed (thank you for your interest)
Wow! I stirred more emotion than I would have anticipated. Anyway, I am not in any way attempting to downplay the physical suffering of crucifixion. (Which I cannot even imagine.) Really, I was hoping to hear some other insight, and appreciate all feedback. Anyway, in response to your question, Matt, I am coming from the Gospel of Luke. It is described that while in Gethsemane an angel is sent from heaven to strengthen Him. It is striking to me that this occurs in the garden, not while on the cross, or even during His trial and scourging. What do you (as a Master of Theology and as a Human) think of this? I confess, I am not familiar with any cults or Takkinen.

Anonymous Again
Scarlet Pimpernel

Jacob M. Aho said...


Thanks for making your
response concrete and
understandable. I'm not
much of a receiver,
however I was able to
get your drift clearly.

Thanks Jake

Ed said...

A few nitpicky notes:

Scarlet, Luke doesn't say he sweated blood, it only says his sweat became "like drops of blood." While this may or may not have anything to do with your point, I thought it was still worth pointing out. If I were to say, "Jesus smashed his thumb with a hammer and it became like a cherry tomato," it's a very different thing than to say it became a cherry tomato without the "like." In the second instance, we must postulate the miraculous, without doubt.

Matt, "he descended into hell" is not part of any version of the Nicene Creed that I'm familiar with. I think you mean the "Apostle's Creed."

Sorry for nitpickiness. I just thought I'd say that for clarity's sake.

Matt Perkins said...

Thanks Ed for the correction - yes it was the Apostle’s Creed.

S.P. Sorry to assume something about you that was not true. Please forgive me. What do I think of the Agony in the Garden? I think of Christ, who had never shown anything that could be described as fear during His earthly ministry, saying "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death," and asking the Father, "let this cup pass from me." Which causes me to ponder what was in the cup? I think the answer to that is clear. The cup that Christ drank in His suffering was the cup deserved by every sinner - the cup of God's wrath. Paul writes, "we have been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!"(Romans 5:9). Isaiah prophesied: "But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed," and "Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt..."(Isaiah 53:5-6, 10) With this in mind I also think of Christ saying, "I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord."(John 10:17-18) So when I think of Gethsemane I think of Christ's love displayed in the great sacrifice He made on behalf of sinners like me. And I think of the Father’s love in the giving of His only begotten Son.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Ed, someone needs to be thorough, and I appreciate your passion for your faith. Matthew, thank you for your testimony and sermon. I do not feel that you were in any way being presumptuous toward me, and could never "forgive" you for a non-existent offense. I am truly enjoying having the opportunity to communicate with--do you consider yourself--a Minister? (And I hope my ignorance doesn't in any way offend you.) I thoroughly enjoy your blog and anxiously await your next post.

Scarlet Pimpernel

Matt Perkins said...

Hey S.P., I'm certainly not offended and I'm glad you enjoy this blog. I don't consider myself a minister as a pastor is a minister but I do think that every Christian is a minister as a member of the priesthood of believers. I often have mixed feelings about even having a blog and have thought many times of deleting it but I also pray that God would use this blog for His glory and for the good of those who love Him.