Truth Is The Word

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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.

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.
 

Nothing new under the sun

In the first few years of our Christian life my wife and I were part of a small Methodist church in Port Elizabeth. Our congregation did not have our own resident minister and so we relied a lot on visiting lay preachers to take our Sunday services. One particular Sunday one of these men visited us and preached from Ecclesiastes 1:9-10; ‘what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? The sermon lived up to its title and really was quite forgettable. The preacher himself must have thought so too because a few months later he again preached at our church and started his sermon with the words, “The title of my sermon today is ‘There is nothing new under the sun’.  He then proceeded to repeat his earlier message word for word!

This is the season when we usually make plans for the year that lies ahead. If we are particularly conscientious we also produce a budget to give us some idea of what our plans and aspirations are going to cost. Some people are boldly imaginative and plan new and different things, but for most folk the process of planning and budgeting is more an exercise in extrapolation. We infer the unknown from the known. We use the past as the pattern for the future. We might stretch ourselves a little, but in the main our plans and budgets look much like last years plus a little extra for inflation – ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again’.

I have had several conversations with investment consultants who point to the past growth of equities as the evidence of their suitability as a future investment. Ok, but what if everything changes? What if something happens in the world or in our country that changes the rules of the investment game? How well will equities perform then? It is a disturbing thought to many, but we are now living in an age where the past is no longer the best predictor of the future. “Look! This is something new” is a phrase that constantly rings in our 21st century ears. So, scenario planning is now in vogue. The new way of planning is to identify a number of possible future scenarios, allocate each a probability, and then to plan accordingly.

There is a current line of reasoning in educational circles which holds that we need to be teaching our children to think imaginatively. The idea is to prepare them to face a rapidly changing world with a nimble mind and a set of creative and critical thinking skills. Just having a head full of facts derived from past reality is just not good enough anymore.

Having said all this, here is another scripture to consider; Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19) The world is changing like a chameleon on steroids, but God is ahead of the game and He wants us to see what He is doing so we can get into line with His plans and purposes. If we listen carefully to the Holy Spirit, and keep alert to what He is causing to ‘spring up’, then we will not be swamped by the storm of change that is flooding the world. With God, planning can be an exhilarating visionary experience and not a futile extrapolation of the past. We don’t need to be frustrated by the failure of our traditional planning techniques, and nor do we need to be afraid of the uncertainty of the age. Rather, what we need to do is to align ourselves as best we can with the greatest change-agent of all, Almighty God, and to step boldly with Him into an exhilarating future.

Yesterday, today, forever,
Jesus is the same,
All may change, but Jesus never!
Glory to His name,
Glory to His name,
Glory to His name;
All may change, but Jesus never!
Glory to His name.

 

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”.

Faith

“Pat, where is your faith?!”
The exclamation came from a lady in our congregation just after my wife had shared her concern about the church finances. I had left a secure and well paid executive job in a major bank just months before to pastor a very small but growing church. A flu epidemic was sweeping our area and Pat had said something like, “If everyone is sick and they don’t come to church then how are we going to make ends meet?” It was in the days when most people used cheques or cash, and so non-attendance usually meant non-giving. Despite our concerns, everything worked out just fine and has continued to do so till this day, but I wonder what the lady meant by her question.
Today when I hear people talking about faith I still question what they mean when they use the word.
To some people faith equates to ‘standing on the promises of God’. By this they usually mean all the general promises of scripture irrespective of when or to whom they were originally given. Some take this even further by constantly reminding God what He has promised in the Bible. Some even claim the promises as their right and confess that God is bound by His Word to fulfil them all. Is this biblical faith? I don’t think it is, in fact it sounds more like presumption to me. I have serious reservations about placing unqualified trust and dependence on generalised biblical statements such as ‘”I will restore you to health and heal your wounds” declares the Lord’ (Jeremiah 30:17).  Surely I cannot ‘claim’ this promise in my current circumstance irrespective of context, time, and purpose, simply because it is stated in the Bible as a promise to ancient Israel?

Some folk believe that faith is a force that can be used to achieve what we want. They base this on the King James Version of Hebrews 11:1, ‘now faith is the substance of the things hoped for…’ A dictionary definition of ‘substance’ includes the idea of something tangible, like electricity, so accordingly ‘faith’ is something tangible that can be manipulated in a similar way to, say, electricity. According to this doctrine, we should grow our faith and use our faith in order to obtain what we hope for.  Of course words like ‘substance’ in King James’s day meant something else entirely and modern translations render it as ‘being sure of ‘(NIV) or ‘assurance’ (NASV), or something similar. So is this ‘faith is a force’ idea biblical? I don’t believe it is. Having faith in faith is both unbiblical and almost atheistic. Where is the need for God in such a doctrine? All one needs is to believe that belief itself will achieve for us what we hope for – God is superfluous! Our faith is not in faith, but in Jesus, who is the source and object of our trust and dependence.

In the Old Testament, faith is defined as resting, trusting and hoping in God, with the idea that we should trust in and commit ourselves to the Lord. In the New Testament, faith is defined as believing and accepting a statement as true, and further, to place personal trust in this belief. To have faith in Jesus for salvation is therefore to believe what He says and to rely on Him to accomplish what He says He will do.
However, faith in itself is not limited to Christians. To my mind, atheists are people of great faith because they choose to believe that God does not exist and they live accordingly, trusting implicitly that life ends at the grave and that there is no eternal accountability for how they live out their lives. However, to the Christian, faith should never be separated from the one in whom we have faith, the Lord Jesus Christ

In essence, faith is a divinely motivated decision to believe and trust in the Lord Jesus. The Holy Spirit illuminates the testimony of the scriptures to us in such a way that we believe sufficiently to act on or rest completely in the promise. The basis of our faith is the nature and character of God as revealed in and through Jesus Christ. God is good, faithful, and totally trust-worthy.

Perhaps the lady who responded to my wife’s concerns should have addressed her as follows; “Pat, do you believe that God has assured you that He will provide for your needs? Then have faith in what He has said to you; believe Him, trust Him and don’t worry about the flu epidemic. You might be short of funds for a month, or maybe longer, but you will come through because God will not desert you; He is faithful”

 

 

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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. I have started a site called Classical Guitar SA to serve classical guitar enthusiasts in South Africa.