shorter catechism update

Four and a half years ago, I wrote this post and called it my own “shorter catechism.” A catechism is a teaching device based on questions and answers that Christians have long made use of. Back then, I wrote ten of my own questions and answers as a way to succinctly express some of the fundamentals of my (teenage) spirituality.

Since then, my faith has been deeply challenged and bruised. I couldn’t have known then the kind of mental discord and spiritual silence I would have to learn to live with. I’ve often felt far from God and I’ve often doubted his goodness and his existence. You could say that, in a small way, I’ve participated in the spiritual loneliness that Christ himself experienced, along with nearly every other biblical and historical saint.

And yet, God is good. I can say that honestly, if not as boldly as before. There are some hard things you have to believe in order to be a Christian. You have to wrap your mind around eternal destinies. You have believe in Adam and Eve. You have to submit to the idea of authority and hierarchy. Etc. It can hurt, at times.

And yet, I can’t tear myself away from the need for Theos or from the love of Christ on the cross. Those two stakes in the ground keep me standing.

Perhaps if I didn’t feel my need for salvation, it would be easier to live without articulated ideological commitments. In other words, I might be more easily swayed towards agnosticism if not for my deep-seated sense of spiritual and moral hunger, a hunger unsatisfied by my own disappointing efforts at intentional living. Some would call that psychological weakness. Maybe. But conviction of sin is like a light turned on in a dark room, and once that light goes on, everything else feels cowardly and self-deceptive.

Thus, everything I wrote four years ago is still true. I’m still a Christian, because Jesus is still the only one who can save me, and I still know that I need saving. Sometimes I’m growing, sometimes I’m barely holding on–may God have mercy on me. Yet God is greater, and God is good. My trembling grip on him is unfailingly overpowered by his unyielding embrace of me.

So, I’d like to repost that old “shorter catechism” as a testimony to the faithfulness of my Father in preserving my faith through this journey in the Beast’s territory. If you are a person who struggles to believe, I can relate. Reach out to me, and let’s talk about it.

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love is:

  • the reason Jesus came into the world
[Jesus said,] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
  • the reason for salvation
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:4-7
  • the great commandment
And one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40
  • the fulfillment of the law
Owe no one anything except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Romans 13:8-10

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:13-14

  • a new commandment
[Jesus said,] “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 1 John 2:7-10

  • the character of God
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:7-10
  • the greatest of these
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

repent, believe, repeat

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Mark 1:15

The Bible’s criteria for salvation are beautifully simple: repent, and believe. No mystic rituals, no secret info, no complex systems of moral progression. Simply: turn away from sin, toward God, and trust in Jesus, and what he has done, as your salvation. Repentance and faith are in fact two sides of the same coin, and one does not come without the other.

Repentance means reorienting one’s life, from sin to righteousness, darkness to light, life to death, idols to the living God.  Jesus told Paul at the beginning of Paul’s ministry, “I have appeared to you for this purpose… to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).

Repentance was the major theme of the Old Testament prophets. For centuries, they pleaded with the people: repent! Your sin is evil in God’s eyes! Do not provoke him any longer. Come back to the God who loves you; humble yourselves and he will receive you. Repent and find life. “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).

Their audiences, however, did not often listen. Israel excelled in showy religion and superficial repentance, imitating all the outward signs without any of the inner change. God said, “…this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…” (Isaiah 29:13) Israel’s repentance was fake because they did not often take either the holiness of God, or the kindness of God, to heart.

Recognizing God’s holiness motivates repentance because it shows a person the gravity of their sin and the terribleness of God’s reaction against it. The prophets threatened the judgment of God in order to turn the Israelites back to the covenant they had made with him, drilling into their heads: God hates your corruption, injustice, irreverence, and complacency. If you do not repent, he will judge you for your sin, mightily and terribly. Look at the second chapter of Joel as an example. The first eleven verses outline Joel’s wake up call to Israel, predicting the impending judgment of God.

The prophets, and all the biblical authors, understood that something even more fundamental than the fear of God’s judgment motivates heart-level repentance, however. Paul said in Romans 2:4, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.” The following twenty-one verses of Joel 2 describe the kindness of God, beginning with a character description: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” The most stunning display of God’s kindness is at the cross, the place at which the man who is God died for his enemies (Romans 5:6-11). The message of that story brings real change – and it really starts to mean something when the first point, about God’s holiness, is properly grasped.

Faith is the partner of repentance. Faith means trusting in something – Someone – outside oneself for rescue and change. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith looks out and up for forgiveness purchased by another person’s sacrifice and righteousness earned by another person’s effort – that other person being Jesus Christ. “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Faith does not trust itself. It doesn’t trust its own performance or effort. Faith rests – really rests – in the completed work of Jesus the Savior.

Faith learns from repentance the pervasive presence of sin in the heart and the total inadequacy of “good” deeds and “good” attitudes. Much of repentance is seeing sin for what it is, dragging it out of foggy darkness into penetrating daylight (Ephesians 5:6-14). That knowledge, though, if not coupled with faith which finds its security in Jesus alone, is devastating. Knowledge of our sin is always meant, without fail, to bring us back to simple gratitude for and wonder at the cross of Christ.

Conversion means: repent, believe. Christians too often forget that the rest of their lives follow the same pattern: repent, believe, repent, believe, repeat, repeat, repeat.

As the Holy Spirit opens a person’s spiritual eyes to their own sin more and more, that person will learn to repent weekly, daily, hourly. Life as a Christian is constant war against sin (complacency and apathy so often being the very sins in need of battle and repentance, of course). Turning, re-turning, re-turning from sin, meanwhile always resting, always secure, always satisfied, in the complete sufficiency of Jesus and his cross. That’s your life, Christian. There is so much grace in it. God does not give up on us. Until death or Christ’s return, the battle does not stop – but then neither does the rest.

the gospel

gospel = good news that brings great joy

There is no other place to start than with the gospel. The gospel is the central message of Christianity and the grand theme of the Bible. It is the starting place and ending place of the whole Christian life. It’s a story, and it begins with God…

Get a bigger idea of God than the one that you have. God exists: he is completely self-sufficient, independent, perfect, pure, and eternal. He exists in an eternal fellowship of three persons in one essence, whom we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. John 5:26

As for God, his way is perfect: the LORD’s word is flawless. Psalm 18:30

Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? Isaiah 40:13

God created the universe out of nothing, from the vastest galaxy to the protons and electrons of the smallest atom. He created spirits and a spiritual world. He created the earth and everything that lives on it. He created all these things for his own glory and purposes, and for the love and joy of his creation. At the pinnacle of his creation on earth he created humans to “bear his image” (represent his qualities; hold in themselves a reflection of who God is) and to rule the earth: not autonomously, but in everything dependent on God; loving him, praising him, loving and helping each other, and willingly submitting their wills to his.

You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you. Nehemiah 9:6

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27

Humanity rebelled, and has continued to rebel to this day. Humanity’s rebellion against God, called sin, is an exchange of the worship of God for the worship of self and things God has created. God hates it, for it is a perversion and distortion of what he has made. Its results are suffering, misery, evil, and, ultimately, death and the holy wrath of God.

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Romans 1:25

All humans participate in this rebellion. Not just occasionally, when they lie or steal, but constantly, whenever they fail to worship God with everything in them, or when they love themselves more than other people. All humanity has turned away from God and gone their own way, and as a result, the world is evil, violent, self-serving, and corrupt. All of us have rejected God and pretended we were gods instead. And all of us deserve nothing other than his anger and judgment.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. Ephesians 2:1-3

[God,] your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing. Habakkuk 1:13

It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:31

Now, God – eternal, independent, all-powerful, self-existent, glorious – did not leave it at that. He never planned to leave it at that. In all love, in all kindness, in unimaginable grace, God the Son entered time and space as a man, a real man. He was conceived miraculously, was born naturally, lived sinlessly, was murdered unjustly, and was resurrected to life again after three days. His name was Jesus, which means “God saves.”

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. Acts 2:22-24

Through Jesus and only through him, reconciliation to God and freedom from sin and death are freely available. He lived perfectly so that those who believe can be credited before God with his perfect record. He died on a cross so that their debt to God can be paid for and their sins forgiven by his own taking on of the wrath of God. He rose from the dead because death could not hold him. God accepted his sacrifice on our behalf and promises the same kind of resurrection life to all who believe.

He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. Colossians 2:13-14

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” John 11:25-26

Through Jesus, the image of God in a person, once broken and distorted by sin, is restored. Through Jesus, sinful humans are recreated into what we were always meant to be. Through Jesus, the judgment of God is turned away and the love of God is lavished on us. Through Jesus, the unapproachable Deity becomes freely accessible; we are adopted into his family. Through Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God lives in us and changes us. Through Jesus come peace, joy, hope, freedom, value, and meaning. Through him comes true, indestructible life. He is the answer to our need, and the purpose of our lives. His love is the most incredible, truest reality in the whole world.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. Ephesians 3:12

It is through faith – belief and trust in what Jesus has done – that any person receives this free gift of God called redemption. No one can earn it; any good thing a person does is merely what they ought to have been doing all along. And even the good things we do outside faith are distorted by wrong motives and self-love. If you think God will save you from judgment because you are “good enough” or because you try to love him, understand that you not good enough and that you hardly love him. Instead, understand, know, and believe that Jesus is in all ways good enough and that he has loved you first.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:9-10

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:15