Joy Magazine

The liberal ‘gevaar’

In many evangelical circles, and certainly amongst most fundamentalists, the world ‘liberal’ carries with it a definite emotional and theological charge.

Liberals are seen as threatening the Faith and undermining true Christian theology. Liberals have a nefarious agenda; they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and so on. Liberal theologians, on the other hand, are concerned at what they observe as a lack of love and compassion for the human condition among fundamentalists. They also take exception to what they perceive as the naïve and uncritical spiritualisation of evangelicals. Some, like bishop Spong for instance, even contend that unless they save Christianity from unscientific supernaturalism it will become first irrelevant and then extinct.

So what is theological liberalism?  I would describe liberals as people who hold the following theological beliefs:  Concerning the Bible, they generally believe that the scriptures are no more inspired than other important literary works. As a result, they subject the Bible to rigorous ‘higher’ criticism and discount much of its historic reliability and factual accuracy. Concerning salvation, they understand regeneration as a reprogramming of the individual mind and the transformation of the structures of society. Liberal theology is both humanistic and anti-supernatural. On the positive side, this results in a focus on compassion for people and consideration for the human habitat. On the negative side, it strips Christianity and the Bible of everything that cannot be logically explained. Angels have never been scientifically evaluated therefore they cannot exist. A miracle is merely the mythological name given to a natural process we do not yet fully understand. Rebirth is actually just a way of describing the process of intellectual and moral transformation. The virgin birth is superfluous… and so on. I need to note though that there is a continuum from old fashioned liberalism on the one end, through neo-liberalism, evangelical orthodoxy, to fundamentalism on the other end. Some fundamentalists regard the average evangelical as somewhat liberal, and many liberals see little difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists.

As an evangelical, I have very real problems with most that goes under the heading of theological liberalism. I accept that the Bible has a human aspect to it, but I do not accept that it is anything other than divinely inspired and authoritative. If, as many liberals contend, most of the New Testament is simply a record of the philosophy of Paul of Tarsus, then it provides only limited help in the 21st century and no certainty for an eternal future. If the Gospels record the embellished mythology of overzealous first century Christ-followers, then perhaps Jesus did not do what they say He did and His teaching is no more definitive than that of any other wise man of His day. If man is essentially good, then sin is just a religious word for social dysfunction. If right and wrong, morality and immorality are genetically or culturally determined, then homosexuality is just a matter of personal preference or predisposition, and abortion on demand a societal convenience.

If science stands above scripture as the yardstick of truth, then tomorrow’s truth will not be the same as today’s truth and both will be uncertain.
If God is an archaic name for cosmic group consciousness, then the possibility of a personal relationship with him, her, or it is an absurd idea. If Jesus was just a radical Jewish teacher and activist then I am without a saviour and my only hope for the future is my own effort, the success of my particular race or society, and a lot of luck. If this is what the Christian Faith truly is then it isn’t worth saving.

I see no point to a liberal Faith of the kind I have described. However, a note of sober caution is in order. Liberalism is not the only aberration within the greater body of the Church. In my opinion, extreme fundamentalism, on the other side of the continuum, with its harsh separatism and exclusive definitions of biblical inerrancy, creationism and so on, is an ill-conceived over-reaction to liberalism. In its own way it does just as much damage to the credibility and vitality of the Christian Faith.  Naive and slavish literalism denigrates the rational aspect of biblical faith; fixation on non-fundamental doctrines fragments the church; separatist pride and lovelessness opens the chasm between church and world even wider than it already is.

Another caution is that we should recognise the liberalism in our own views and practices. When we focus on societal change as the Faith priority, then we are comfortably in line with the liberal agenda. When we practice our Faith as an essentially private matter, largely unconfined by the demands and restraints of church life and doctrine, then we are being distinctly liberal. When we respond accommodatingly to unbiblical societal norms with the mantra, ‘different strokes for different folks’, then we are surely liberals at heart. So perhaps, rather than being as concerned as we often appear to be with only  the liberalism we identify in the institutions of the church, we ought also to examine the insidious incursion of it into our own lives and thinking.

I can’t speak for you, but I actually don’t want religion of any type, liberal or other; I want a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and as illuminated by the Holy Spirit … so help me Father God.

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The hope of glory

When I was ten my parents decided to give my older sister piano lessons. I asked them why I too could not be taught to play the piano, but they dismissed the idea out of hand. This really upset me! My parents were often out in the evenings for business or church functions and so every time they went out I executed a cunning plan. One of their favourite LP’s was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto number one, and so each time I was alone I put this record onto the turntable, sat at the piano, and laboriously learned to play two minutes of the first movement. One evening after supper I asked if I could play something on the piano. They smiled indulgently at each other but their smiles turned into open mouthed surprise when I flamboyantly played the first few bars.

Now the truth is that I was no child prodigy, just a brat with a good ear and perseverance. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if my parents had mistakenly believed that I was a master musician in the making, and insisted on three lessons a week and endless hours of practice. How frustrating and heart-breaking that would have been for everyone.  No matter how many hours I practiced I could never be like Tchaikovsky; it just isn’t in me.

I suspect that many Christians feel frustrated and defeated by constantly trying to be LIKE Jesus and failing time and again to imitate Him.
They never say so out loud, but inside they often say; “I just can never be like Jesus! I try and try but I keep falling short and it’s frustrating me terribly. I love Jesus and its breaking my heart that I can’t be like Him as He expects me to.” Some people give up when this realisation dawns on them and become closet-Christians, or they lapse into living the Faith life in guilty failure. To make matters worse, these folk often have to endure a regular Sunday dose of moralistic preaching which just serves to make them feel even worse about themselves.

Len Sweet and Frank Viola write the following in Jesus Manifesto; ‘the “good news” is that Jesus doesn’t want us to be “like” Him. He wants to share His resurrection life with us. He doesn’t want us to imitate Him; instead, Christ, the Unspeakable Gift, wants to live in and through us. The gospel is not the imitation of Christ; it is the implantation and impartation of Christ. We are called to do more than mediate truth. We are called to manifest Jesus’ presence. That “we” means you’ (http://www.thejesusmanifesto.com). Are they right? Actually, they are not alone in proclaiming this message. Dr Jim Fowler writes in one of his essays that ‘the Christian life works by the out-working of the life of Jesus Christ. Christians must give up trying to make the Christian life work by their own efforts and orientations, and allow the life of Jesus Christ to be lived out through them.’ (http://www.christinyou.net)

Instead of examining the theology of this, I want rather, in this short article, to touch on some practical implications. If we are oriented to imitating Jesus then will we not end up practicing just another form of works-oriented religion?  It sounds a noble idea to imitate Jesus in our daily lives but success will surely depend largely on how well WE can do this. However, if we understand that it is Christ within who seeks to manifest His life through our lives, then the criteria for success will be His initiative and our yielded cooperation. Instead of putting on our faith life from without, we manifest it from within. This is closer to what Jesus himself taught, modelled and prayed for (see John 17:20-23). It seems that we are not called to perfectly imitate Jesus Christ, but to manifest His life through our lives – not imitation but incarnation.

Jesus’ life is loving and kind, and so to manifest His life is to be loving and kind. His life is holy, and so to manifest His life to be holy. Jesus’ life is anointed and miraculous, and so to manifest His life is to live in the anointed miraculous. His life is a life of giving and sacrifice, so to manifest His life is to live a life of giving and joyful self-sacrifice.

For the last 30 years I have taught that the purpose of life is to come to know Jesus, to become like Him, and to help others to do likewise. It is time I amended it to read;

‘the purpose of life is to come to know Jesus, to manifest His life through our lives, and to help others to do likewise’.  Know Him and show Him.
 

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Getting to the end of ourselves

We need to get to the end of ourselves to fully experience God’s power in and through us.

Would you agree with this statement? Well, it seems to be one of the things Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 12 where he defends his apostolic ministry. First he mentions that God caught him up to heaven where he ‘heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell’. Then, he continues, God gave him a ‘thorn in his flesh’ to prevent him from becoming conceited. But Paul’s affliction also served another purpose; it kept him dependent on God.

When he asked the Lord to heal his progressive blindness, for that is what I think the ‘thorn’ was (see Galatians 4:13-16 and 6:11), God responded with, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. The first part of this could well mean something like, “Paul, don’t worry what others think of you because my favour and regard is all you need.” However, it is the second part of the statement that I want to zoom in on; “My power is made perfect in weakness”. A loose paraphrase of this could be, “My power only really manifests fully in you when you stop trying to do it all yourself. For me to be strong in you, you need to know that you are weak in yourself.” Now that is a rather strange thought for many of us. Certainly it contradicts the way the business and political world thinks; one of their motto’s is ‘the only one you can rely on is yourself’, and there are several others that express the same sentiment. But does God mean that He wants us to do nothing so that He can do it all? I don’t think that is quite it.

In the Old Testament there is the fascinating story of how Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord at a place he later called Peniel. Jacob was a tricky fellow who had thrived by using his wit and abilities to excel, largely at the expense of others. He had stolen the rights of a first born son from his brother Esau and now the time had come for him to face up to both himself and his brother. He sent his family and possession on ahead of him to impress and placate his brother in a final attempt to get ahead through guile and strategy. Then he stayed alone all night at a spot where the Jabbok and Jordan rivers meet. The Lord appeared to him in material form and wrestled with him until dawn. Finally, when all of Jacob’s strength and endurance were at an end, the Lord permanently impaired him by throwing his hip out of joint. God then changed the ’victorious’ man’s name to Israel.

I have three questions concerning this powerful interaction between God and Jacob. The first is, ‘Why did the Lord wrestle with Jacob the whole night when he could have beaten him in a nanosecond?’ I think that it was because He wanted Jacob to get to the very end of himself; of his strength, skill, and endurance. Secondly, ‘Why did the Lord give Jacob a permanent limp (a thorn in the flesh)?’ My belief is that this was to constantly remind him that God was stronger than him. Lastly, ‘Why did the Lord change Jacob’s name to Israel?’ Well, the name Jacob means ‘supplanter, trickster, con-man’. Israel, on the other hands means either ‘he strives with God’, or ‘Prince with God’, or even ‘Let God rule’. By the way, the reason one Hebrew word can be translated in different ways is primarily because the language has no vowels and so these are added when translating to make sense of the word within its specific context. By renaming Jacob I believe that God was, among other things, saying, “Jacob, in yourself you are just a con man, but in me you are a prince.” Jacob came to Peniel in his own strength but he left it to meet his brother in the Lord’s strength.

Paul expressed the principle of getting to the end of oneself as, ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10). However, it is clear from his attitude and actions that he didn’t stop trying his hardest to be and do what was honouring to God. For instance, in Philippians 3:13-14 he writes, ‘Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus’. The proper response to the realisation that Gods strength is manifest in our weakness is not to give up or to try less, but to come swiftly into line with God’s purpose and power. It is mostly a matter of attitude.

What usually happens with us, if we are honest with ourselves, is that we try to do everything we can in our own strength and then, like Jacob, we only come to God for help when we have tried everything but are still not succeeding.
We seem to have to get to the end of ourselves before we rely on God’s grace and strength. What a pity! Wouldn’t it make so much more sense if we realised up front that we can’t do it on our own and asked the Lord Jesus to partner with us from the very beginning.

I think the words ‘partner with us’ are the key here. God is the senior partner and we are junior partners – but partners never the less. We need to do our very best, but in partnership with Almighty God. Our prayer needs to be, “Lord I can’t do this on my own so I want to do it with you, and your way, from the very beginning”.

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What we need most

When I look at the state of the world and our nation, and hear the contentions of Evangelical world church leaders that much of the church has fallen asleep, then I have great hope.

Sounds strange, but that is the truth of it. However, my hope is not that the nation will suddenly change from corruption, violence, and general indolence, to heaven-on-earth. Nor is my hope that the churches of South Africa will structurally unite and exercise major social transformation initiatives. No, my hope is that God the Father will take mercy on His people, that the Lord Jesus will intercede for us, and that the Holy Spirit will overwhelm the church with … Revival! We need nothing less at this time, and nothing less will do.

Jonathan Goforth was instrumental in the Manchurian revival of 1908 and he is quoted as stating that the three key precursors to revival are (i) prayer, (ii) a return to the authority of the Bible, and (iii) placing Jesus at the centre as Saviour and Lord. In this article I would like to briefly explore what these mean at a practical level.

Jesus told His followers to wait in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high and so they waited and prayed. This seems to be a common preparatory feature in the historic revivals I have studied. God instructs a few to expect revival, and they wait and pray until it comes as promised. During revivals, prayer is usually intense and all inclusive. What starts with a few people praying ends with whole congregations, and even regions, on their knees in intense prayer. My dilemma is whether to attempt to organise people to pray. My natural inclination is to exhort folk and to set up regular prayer meetings. My spiritual intuition says no, step aside so that God can do what only He can do. Perhaps when people start to come to the church building to pray, without being obligated to do so, then is the time to announce that the Holy Spirit has organised a regular prayer meeting.

Concerning a return to the authority of the Bible, that is something I do not need to return to because I believe and teach this concept. However, this may well be a challenge for some reading this article. Topical preaching is powerful in the hands of a master of the scriptures, but dangerous in the hands of anyone less.

When using the topical approach to preaching it is too easy to justify one’s own ideas from selected texts. Expository preaching, on the other hand, gives full honour to the authority of scripture and compels the preacher to deal with what a given portion of scripture says. So, to experience full revival perhaps we need to revive expository preaching.
The Bible is the written Word of God, but Jesus Christ is the Living Word. A core issue for me has always been the centrality of Jesus. Most, if not all, Evangelicals will gladly embrace this and claim it as their central tenet. However the truth of this claim lies in how we apply the concept. Is what Jesus said and did the prime determiner of our doctrine and practice? Do we interpret the Bible and seek to apply it in the light of the revelation of the nature and character of the Godhead as revealed in and through Jesus? One example will have to suffice. In Acts chapter five Luke records the sad and confusing tale of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. Almost every commentator I have read claims that God slew the two, and they give a number of reasons. Few ask the question, ‘would Jesus kill His own disciples?’ Later in Acts, Luke records how Paul dealt with a man called Elymas, who he described as ‘a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! (Acts 13:11). His punishment was to be struck blind for a period of time, but the punishment for Ananias was instant execution! Elymas’ sentence was reasonable, appropriate, and redemptive, while the sentence passed on the disciples appears not to be. The couple were children of God while Elymas was a child of the devil. Difficult as it may be to interpret Acts 5, the question that must be asked and answered if we are to honour the Christ-centred principle is, ‘would Jesus do this?’ Another way of asking the question is, ‘is this consistent with the nature and character of God as revealed in and through the Lord Jesus Christ?’

The solution to the woes of the church, and hence our country can, I believe, be addressed only by a genuine and powerful Holy Spirit revival. Revival is an act of God. The sovereign Lord has already spoken to several of His people about His intention to send revival. Our response is to pray and to recommit ourselves to the authority of the Bible and the practical centrality of Jesus in our churches and lives. In this lies our hope for our nation at this time.

 

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The Word became Flesh

Ask most Christians to quote their favourite verse and a good number will cite John 3:16. One of my favourite verses is John 1:14 ‘The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us…’

I thrill every time I read those words. God the Son chose to take the very form of a man! (Philippians 2:7) Because of his love for us he voluntarily laid aside his divine powers and became like one of us! He who existed from eternity past in unimaginable glory was willing to live for a while on this dark planet. More than that, he was prepared to suffer terribly and then be put to death in the most barbaric way so that we could have life in his name!

I don’t understand how God accomplished the feat of incarnating divinity into human frailty. Over the centuries theologians have tried in vain to explain this mystery. Most of these attempts ended in some or other heresy. Ebionism, docetism, monophysitism, applonarianism, nestorianism, kenoticism… the list goes on – one unpronounceable formulation after the other! I confess that I don’t even understand the Chalcedonian formula that Jesus was consubstantial with the Father, according to his divinity, and consubstantial with us according to his humanity. Consubstantial means ‘having the same substance’ but, to be frank, this doesn’t help me much. However, this I know – Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). I know further that God the Father was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Colossians 1:19) and that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Hebrews 1:3).

I balk at the idea of trying to explain how all this can be. We exist at present in what Einstein described as a space-time continuum. God is not limited to the dimensionality of this world. His ways are so much higher than our ways. I can’t even explain how light can simultaneously exist as both a wave and a particle. I am told on authority that it does. I choose to believe that it does. The biblical statements are clear – Jesus was and is both God and man. I choose to believe this. I feel no more need to know how God achieved this than to know how light can be both quantum and wave.
Just when did this miraculous union of God and man take place? Most scholars are unanimously of the opinion that it didn’t happen on the 25th December. A far more probable date is Jewish New Year of 3 BC. However, the Holy Spirit chose not to record Jesus’ birthday. Perhaps so that we would not overemphasize his humanness to the detriment of our appreciation of his divine pre-existence.

It is quite popular in some church circles to scorn December 25th. We are told that it was an ancient pagan ‘holy’ day and that we shouldn’t associate ourselves with it. But allow me to let you into a secret. It seems that something very special did happen on 25th December 2 BC. On that day, fifteen months after the birth of the messiah, wise men from the East arrived at a little village called Bethlehem. Any of the computerised astronomy programmes available will confirm that on that night there was a significant stellar event. The planet Jupiter reached the end of its procession through the heavens and appeared to stand still in the constellation of Virgo. From the vantage point of Jerusalem the planet would have seemed to be hovering brightly over Bethlehem! That same planet, which the ancients called a wandering star, was in conjunction with Regulus in the constellation of Leo fifteen months earlier. Jupiter was the king of the gods in the Roman pantheon. Regulus was a royal star of the Persians, and Leo was the constellation of kings and was particularly associated with the tribe of Judah.

What thrills me about Christmas is that on that day the world still comes to bow before the king of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ! Two thousand years ago the Magi brought him their worship and gifts. Their modern counterparts are still doing so to this day. Every Christmas the churches, all over the world, are filled with politicians, bankers, scientists, and scholars. Many of them don’t come near a church building at other times of the year, but on December 25th they flock in to sing carols of worship and to drop their money into the collection bag. One of the hymns sung in most churches on this special day is ‘Hark the herald angels sing’. Its second verse contains the words ‘…veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate deity! Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.’

Immanuel means ‘God with us’. The wonder of the incarnation is that God came to be with us. Through the Holy Spirit he is still with us. Because he came, we can be with him, both now and eternally. I love Christmas day!
 

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.