Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Why Christianity? - A discussion with reference to Martin Luther

"Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, particularly in the last hour, when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. Say with confidence: “Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. The truth is, I am all sin. My sins are not imaginary transgressions, but sins against the first table, unbelief, doubt, despair, contempt, hatred, ignorance of God, ingratitude towards Him, misuse of His name, neglect of His Word, etc.; and sins against the second table, dishonor of parents, disobedience of government, coveting of another’s possessions, etc. Granted that I have not committed murder, adultery, theft, and similar sins in deed, nevertheless I have committed them in the heart, and therefore I am a transgressor of all the commandments of God."
Martin Luther

I've been really enjoying helping at the alpha course at my local Church the past few weeks. I get to jibber about theology to people who don't know me well enough to tell me to shut up so it's great! It's now come to the point at alpha when everyone feels comfortable enough to speak about their problems with Christianity. The most common objections I hear from people are to do with the distinctiveness of Christianity. How has Christianity got more of a right to claim our obedience than the other religions like Islam and Judaism? The second most common objection to Christianity is the doctrine of Hell (and the next post will be about just that). For the time being I will hope to show why Christianity can indeed be properly distinguished from other religions. I'm using Luther because I think he has an astonishingly good grip on the nature of Christian conviction as opposed to other types of conviction.

Luther was writing at a time when the established Church was demanding money from believers for their salvation. Moreover, the Bible was only accessible to those who were educated and could speak Latin. Luthers passion was for the individual to have access to the Bible and thus make up their mind about the gospel independent of corruption and control. He translated the Bible into German so that everyone could have access to the message he was trying to get accross. Luther is one of the main reasons that Scripture is so readily available to us today. I mention this in a discussion of the value of Christianity because I think it sheds light on the spirit of Christian conviction. We are called to make a decision 'for ourselves' and not as such through any mediators whether it be the Church, Priests or Church Fathers etc. In an interview Bono from U2 said 'I was always suspicious of Christianity when I was younger, but I always wanted to know more about Jesus'. Luther would have applauded this attitude and articulates it thus:

"True Christian theology does not inquire into the nature of God, but into God’s purpose and will in Christ, whom God incorporated in our flesh to live and to die for our sins."

We can see then that one of the core prerequisites of Christian belief is that we be individuals before God, responding and acting upon the conviction that he puts in us. This already helps to show why Christianity is unequaled in it's ability to deal with the human condition. Every other religion has an element of gaining 'merit' before God; do this or that and you may gain Gods favour. As the initial quotation at the top of this page shows, Christianity holds that our efforts to be good are a 'dirty rags' before God. Christianity turns the emphasis around; rather than merit leading to peace with God, Christianity impels us to gain peace with God first through forgiveness, and then let our behaviour be an expression of this new found peace with God.

The Christian challenge to other religions comes in the form of a question which could be articulated as follows; given that you regard God as Holy and totally 'other', how do you account for the fact that we all will eventually fall short of the standards we set ourselves?' Is God ignorant in this respect? Of course the answer is no and it seems to me that Christianity is the religion that takes Gods complete holiness to it's logical conclusion. We cannot do anything to please God, we need Gods grace and forgiveness, and this happens through Jesus Christ.

'So then' said one of the people at alpha 'what if someone is constantly sinning? Is it all magically ok so long as I say sorry?' In a way I'm glad this was brought up, it's a central issue in Pauls writings. Paul asks 'So should I keep sinning so that grace may abound? May it never be!' I did'nt want to go off on some abstract theological debate so instead I focused on the Christian idea of repentence. True Christian repentence doesn't secretely say to itself 'sorry God' but I'm going to keep doing this anyway'. Pauls conversion demonstrates this - he moves from persecuting Christians and approving of their deaths, to travelling all over the world preaching the gospel. This to my mind is the true idea of Christian repentence - it can't be faked and it always results in action of some sort. Indeed if someone was to react with this secret motive one would have to ask whether they have even understood the gospel. One of the remarkable claims of Christianity is that human actions have such gravity that it requires the death of God in order to set it straight. Once this is believed, is it even possible to treat our own sin with anything but contempt? Of course the struggle with sin is a life-long struggle, but the point is that true repentence leads to action.

When Paul said 'those who are in Christ are a new creation' he wasn't just referring to the inner condition of man, he is also suggesting that there is a noticeable difference in their behaviour with someone who has given their life to Christ. A recent Tim Hughes Song sums up the Christian response to forgiveness; 'free to be, free to give, free to love you'. Christians are free to love God in such a way that although their efforts are indeed a dirty rags before him, he accepts them in love because we are forgiven by Christ.

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