Imperfect Balance of Works Over Grace in Asian Churches

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Conservative evangelical Christians, myself included, at an earlier time in my life, was taught that sanctification, or to be made holy, was something we can partially achieve ourselves by living holy and righteous lives each day of the week.

Well, perhaps it wasn’t taught directly, but we were taught to presume and assume this was at least partially true.  The occasional right teaching on grace sort of kept the above false assumption in check.  Thank God we didn’t completely go off the rails.

A discomforting imbalance hung in the air every Sunday when I walked into church.  I wondered if being a Christian was mainly about following rules, or was it mainly about trusting in God’s grace?  Both these ideas were taught–even simultaneously in the same sermon.  On some Sundays, I heard more of one than the other–usually about living as a “good Christian.”

Grace is for either seriously back-slidden Christians or for brand new born-again Christians who need Jesus.  The bit about following rules was for the rest of us Christians who weren’t in either of these two camps.

I don’t know if that sounds like something you experienced in your church experience.

For many, such laws are a part of one’s piety and spirituality:

  • Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.
  • Don’t swear or curse.
  • Don’t lie.
  • Don’t cheat.
  • Don’t steal….

Sound familiar?  Nothing wrong with these laws.  They’re in the bible and I believe we ought to memorize all Ten Commandments.  They ought to be rigorously taught in Sunday schools and catechism.

We took the commandments in the bible very seriously.  This is a good thing…. however, there can also be a missing link somewhere in our teachings.

If not properly taught, we can easily misunderstand sanctification as moral living or living as a “good Christian.”  In other words, sanctification becomes all about changing our own external behavioral so we can be “good Christians”.  Then, and only then, are we fully “worthy of Christ’s calling.”

If I didn’t live right one day or one week, I would feel guilty.  Guilt sucked!

I would have to go up for the next altar call after a firey sermon, otherwise, my eternal destiny would be at risk.

Western Christianity’s doctrine on grace tells us we are free from the law.  On the other hand, Confucianism reinforced the law. This is where it gets complicated in East Asian churches.

Christians like myself who have been raised in East Asian churches (e.g., Chinese or Korean churches) become geared to follow the law in order to prove we have been sanctified.  If you were raised in an East Asian church, you might likely know what I’m talking about.

I never thought of myself as potential material for college fellowship leader. I knew what they were looking for though.  Someone near perfection.  Some mistakes were allowed but not big ones.

Proving to the leaders and elders in the church that “I’m a good Christian” can become a pre-occupation.  So much so that it becomes one’s cross to bear.  To be considered potential material for future Sunday school teacher, or future youth group/fellowship leader depended on the right image one had to project to the deacons/elders/leaders.

I admit I was a college fellowship leader during my undergraduate days in university in Ottawa, Ontario.  I don’t know what they saw in me, or rather, what they did not see in me.  They probably didn’t see all the dark thoughts I had during the days I was not in church.

I can attest that when deacons were around, it felt like I was walking on eggshells.  My status as a spiritual leader would go up if I did not commit blunders.  It would depend on how my moral performance was that week.

If there were any misbehaviors and others witnessed it, it would not look good to the deacons.  We were spiritually accountable to the fellowship deacon.  If there was sin or sinful thoughts running through my head that week, well, then it was time for another confession or altar call to accept the Lord’s forgiveness.

This is the general feeling of many Christians–young and old.  If one could not prove their worthiness in Christ, he or she’d better straighten up, or leave the church or risk getting kicked-out of church.  It would depend on the degree of sin.  Minor infractions, medium, big, and seriously BIG sins that required deacon and pastoral intervention.

If you knew you couldn’t straighten up, then you’d rather voluntarily leave yourself than have the elder or pastor threaten your moral and social standing in the church.  To make your immorality public would be a huge shame in the Chinese church.

You wouldn’t want the church aunties and uncles talking about you.  They might never stop talking about you, or you’d never have your name and reputation cleared for years.  You’d almost be better off to disappear from church for years and hope they have amnesia.

By the time teenagers and youths became indepenent young adults, they had options. Without Mom or Dad around, they started making their own decisions about attending or not attending church.

Some thought their best option was to leave church.  Some left.  Leaving seemed like a viable option when you feel like a hopeless sinner and a moral loser.  For those of us who stayed in church, we saw those who left church as either smart or as losers.

If we admitted to ourselves how tough it was to live the good Christian life, we thought leavers were smart.  If we did not admit this to ourselves, we thought leavers were losers.

Now looking back, that really was a pathetic line of thought.  The theological and spiritual ramification of that was stark.  You’re either a good Christian or you weren’t.  Not much middle ground.  Middle ground was for luke-warm Christians.

Now that I’m older and wiser, I realized that this kind of thinking is actually the basis of works-righteous.  It sure seemed like a legitimate biblical teaching when it was nicely couched within the teachings on a graceful and loving God.

God’s grace was often held secondary to the necessity of following rules.  Rules were for the seasoned Christians.  As seasoned Christians, we got good at acting like “good Christians.”  The key word here is “acting”.  Many in the church were good actors.  If we were in the core of close-knit friendships, we saw the weaknesses.  You know… the occasional cursing and evil thoughts that crossed our mind.

Being seasoned in “the faith”, we knew what to show and what to hide.  What we could not hide, we had to blame others or accuse others of their failures to put ourselves in better light.  Looking back now, I’d say that was rather hideous.  For some of us who have not grown out of this game, I still see them acting, blaming or accusing.  They still want to be the seasoned players in the game of Church-ianity.

Baptism. If we were committed and baptized Christians, then we were really committed to following Christ.  To follow Christ meant to jump through all the religious hoops, cross all the T’s and dot the I’s.  If we lasted long enough in the religious game, we could teach Sunday school, or even make deacon or elder one day.

It might depend on who’s around.  It’s like a draft pick.  You have first round draft picks, then second round, third, and so on.  The more T’s you cross and I’s you dot, the better your chances of getting picked for deacon or elder, Sunday school teacher.

Confusion in Confucianized Christianity

Looking back now, I have realized that the downside to many of our East Asian churches.  Our ethnic culture is wrought with the philosophical baggage of Confucianism.  I’m not saying that Confucianism is a bad thing, but I won’t say that it’s totally a good thing either.  It’s a philosophy.

Confucianism was meant to be a philosophy and not a religion.  Like Marxism or free-market enterprise philosophies, Confucianism is another philosophy for living and for society.  Thus, it was okay to hold onto Confucianism and still be a bonafide Christian.

In China and East Asia, Confucianism worked to a certain extent.  It did create an orderly society.  But when you mix Confucianism with Christianity, you get a hybrid of some sort.  When you mix Confucianism with works-righteousness together, what do you get?  Confucianized Christianity.  Yes, sounds rather confusing.

I have recognized this breed or hybridized form was a different type of Christianity.  I’m not sure if you can call it pure Christianity, but the Christianity was still there.  One just has to wade through all the weeds to see it.

When you consider the two, they seem to fit nicely together, like hand-in-glove.  Both types of philosophies are very much based on following rules.

When a Chinese or Korean person newly converts to Christianity, it almost seems like a nice fit.  There isn’t a whole lot to change.  The only difference is the theology, but the requirement to follow rules flows seamlessly into the new religion.  The necessity to follow a set of rules is merely a continuation into one’s new religion.  Instead of the teachings of Buddha or Confucius, you’ve got the new teachings of Jesus.

Grace, however, comes into play when you accept Jesus for the first time.  Grace and forgiveness come as the initial terms of salvation.  After you’re saved, more rules will follow.  The works-righteousness type of Christianity becomes a life of following laws, rules and regulations.

I grew up in an Asian family.  Mom and Dad were traditional.  We were taught to respect our elders.  Disrespecting elders was a sin.  Shame on the family name was also a sin.  We were to work hard.  Make good grades in school and do our part to contribute to better society.  That made us a good human being.  To fail was to not know how to be a good human.

The Apostle Paul is the bearer of the light of Christ.  He saw the light on the road to Damascus.  He also saw how circumcision seriously messed up the pure approach to trusting in Jesus for righteousness.  I wonder what Paul would have to say about Confucius.  I also wonder what Confucius would have to say about Paul’s understanding of works-righteousness.

I didn’t realize how Confucian-based cultures can easily twist Paul’s teachings of grace into one of good works.  Chinese Christian churches tend to view grace through Confucianist lenses. We do it so naturally and so easily that we are not even aware of it ourselves.  This is why Chinese churches still struggle with “grace through faith.”

I didn’t realize this spiritual blindness until I got into seminary and began studying Lutheran theology.  I studied theology to enter into Church ministry to serve as a pastor.

About fifteen years later after undergrad studies, I would begin to sense God’s calling in my life.  Through prayer and a sense of God’s leading, I eventually enrolled into a small seminary.  It was here that I first learned about the theology of grace.  Perhaps more on this will come in a future post.

Anyway, second-generation Christians, like myself, who are locally born here (i.e., American-born Chinese or Chinese-born Canadians), occasionally receive a revelation.  Upon a visit to a mainstream non-ethnic church with our friends, we get a taste of how grace is understood and practiced by a non-Asian.

Ooooh.  Somehow, grace tasted different from how it’s practiced in my ethnic church.  It felt less law-oriented.  Less rules-based.  There is a feeling of more liberty and freedom and grace is truly practiced in the Christian life.  It sounded more like something that Jesus would teach and practice.

Example of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool in John ch. 5.  Jesus wanted to prove that sins can be forgiven. In effect, he was trying to convey the thought: “Your sins are forgiven.  And by the way, you are healed too.  So pick up your mat and walk… Now do you believe your sins are forgiven?  Do you need any more proof than this?”

As bible-believing Christians, we are called to trust in God’s grace for forgiveness of sins.  God’s mercy and grace endureth forever.  They’re supposed to endure forever anyway.  Now we got to see it practiced in people’s lives.  Grace looked, smelled, tasted and sounded different than how it was taught in my ethnic Chinese church.

Years later after seminary and after ordination into Ministry into Word and Sacrament, I realized that grace had nothing to do with the racial or ethnic makeup of the church.  Grace is not a western idea.  Rather, it had everything to do with right theology.

Today, this is the reason why I emphasize two big theological ideas in my life.  One, rightly dividing (distinguishing) Law and Gospel and two, Luther’s Theology of the Cross.

When second-generation Christians make the heart-wrenching decision to leave the ethnic church of our parents’, we do it because we have found a new openness of grace in the mainstream American church.

It starts when we will begin to notice a dichotomy between how the two cultures understand and apply grace.  We observe how people and fellow Christians treat one another.  They treat one another with love and respect because there is grace in their lives.  God’s grace becomes apparent when they feel a liberty and freedom in their spirituality.

We sense the fruit of grace first.  We feel liberty and freedom but we don’t know where it comes from.  Initially, we can’t pinpoint what it is.  Sometimes we mistake the freedom for laissez-faire (i.e., anything goes).  But no.  That’s not it.

When we finally realize that the spirit of freedom and liberty comes from grace, we will run to God for grace.  When we can’t identify where freedom and liberty comes from, we are still lost.  When we are lost in darkness, we can only resort to an artificial freedom.  This artificial freedom can only be had through redirecting our own failures onto other people.  How so?  Judging others, condemning attitudes, and by accusing others of their faults so we look better than them.

The Law works like a Mirror

Previously, there would be a heavy spirit of judgment, condemnation, and accusation.  This heavy spiritual atmosphere exists in ethnic Asian churches because of our own requirements we place on ourselves to follow rules and laws.  Rules can only sink a ship.  Rules do not lift us up out of danger.  Rules and our failure to obey the rules act only indicators of danger.  It warns us that we are sinking and need a life-raft.

Martin Luther taught that the Law was like a mirror.  We look at the Law like we look into a mirror and see our own sins.  When we notice our own sins and weakness and failures, we realize our need for a savior.  That is the full extent of the Law.  The Law and our following of the Law cannot save us.  The business of saving is the job and work of the gospel.  The forgiveness of sin is God’s gift or grace received by faith.  This is why we sometimes call it a “faith”.  The irony is that other religions do not necessarily place such a premium on faith.  They really value good works rather than faith.  True authentic Christianity is based on faith rather than works.

The ideas of “freedom from law” in western churches stands in stark contrast to the “duty to obey the law” in ethnic East Asian churches.

We will sometimes rebel against our own ethnic churches because we find it very stifling.  Sometimes, we might not even understand why we feel stifled in Chinese or Korean churches.  All we know is that somehow we just don’t feel comfortable.   We feel that we don’t measure up and never will.  We feel we are being judged at every turn.

As a result, we end up leaving the Asian church and end up going to mainstream churches outside our cultural/ethnic upbringing.

Sadly, there are others who end up leaving the Church entirely–perhaps never to return.  They might be those we grew up together with in Sunday school.  Sad.   They were the “spiritual losers” who couldn’t hack it.  They could not subject themselves to the continuous fakeness and inauthenticity of having to perform an act every Sunday.

Perhaps they were the smart ones who didn’t care to put on a show.  Kudos to them.  I applaud you for your desire for authenticity, and for your abhorrence for hypocrisy.  Thumbs up to you brothers and sisters.  Too bad the aunties and uncles just don’t get it.

These were the religious and spiritual casualties that arose as a result of our religionism. Their absence from the church still pains the hearts of Asian parents.

The irony is that they don’t understand why their left.  They might not ever come to understand the reason themselves.  Unless they come to truly understand the heart and soul that makes the “theology of grace” tick, they will not be able to see past their own dark corners in their religionism.  Dead religion can have such a grip on people’s hearts.  It can blind us.

Welcoming the Stranger

Many of the older generations of East Asian Christians have grown up with a Confucianized Christianity.  They cannot see the difference that grace makes.  They do experience joy when a non-believer comes to faith in Christ.  The call to salvation “Billy Graham style” is always has a dramatic effect on all believers.  They love to witness the salvation of a person’s soul, and the joy that Christ brings into one’s life.

The new birth of a non-believer is a rarity these days in our churches.  We do not witness a stranger walking into a strange church.  If a stranger were to actually do so, they might not know what to do with that stranger.

I remember a stranger walking into the church.  She was not Asian.  Not white or brown. Turns out she was Afro-Carribean.  I will never forget about her.  She came in with tears streaming down her face.  As a pastor, I offered her a seat and invited her to share.  As I listened and empathized as best I could, I could feel her heart open up and saw a smile come into her face.  Near the end of our conversation, I invited her to return on Sunday for a church service.  She did and returned to Sunday church numerous times. I considered her a faithful attendee.  She continued attending even after I left that church.

On these Sundays, I wondered what the older aunties and uncles were thinking when they saw her.  They likely didn’t know what to do with a person like her.  Should they say “hello”?  Do they try to make conversation with her and get to know her as a person?  I know she did try to connect with them, but I can’t say I know they tried to connect with her.

Were there questions running through their minds every time they saw her?  There certainly had to be many.  “Why is she here in our church?  Why don’t he or she attend a black church, or a brown church?  Wouldn’t he or she feel just a little uncomfortable coming to “our” church?  If so, then why is he/she still attending our ethnic church?  Wouldn’t she or he feel more comfortable in a church for their own kind?”

All kinds of judgmental thoughts run through our minds.  Is this supposed to be a true reflection of the kingdom of God?  We know it isn’t.  We also know there isn’t much we can do about it.  We cannot control how our elders feel or think.  If we spoke our mind, it would be disrespectful.  Disrespect is also a sin–perhaps a bigger sin.

I never asked this dear sister why she wasn’t attending a black church.  Some questions came to me years later.  I don’t know why I never got to ask her before.  I didn’t want to be too direct.  Did she previously try attending a black church but decided to leave?  Had she also experienced judgmentalism?  Were there also accusing hearts and eyes in her previous church?  Perhaps she had left and didn’t bother looking for another black church.  Perhaps she was already tired from the spiritual exhaustion of having to deal with the hypocrisy and judgmentalism.  Had she become a “leaver” never to return to her previous home church?  I would not be surprised if this was all an affirmative “Yes”.  Somehow, the Holy Spirit led her to our church and she decided to give this Chinese church a shot.

This is one of the types of challenge our second-generation experiences within the ethnic church.  There is not only a spiritual disconnect, but also a cultural disconnect.  We cannot truly be that American (or Canadian) church we wish we could be within the melting pot society we live in.

The Sickness of Hypocrisy

Churches are full of hypocrites.  Hypocrites exists in churches.  They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, all denominations, and they exists in all countries around the world.  Hypocrisy, sin of judgmentalism and accusation exists in every church.

A perfect church does not exists.   If anyone is on the lookout for a perfect church, they will never find one.  If they think they’ve found one, they should join it.  Once they join the church, it will no longer perfect. Upon inner deep self-reflection, they might realize they are also the source of the problem.  We are all sinners.

We are a sin-sick institution.  Each of us bring our own sickness and viruses.  It can spread into every nook, cranny and crevice inside the church.  The virus of our sin will never leave until one day when Christ returns to receive his church back home.  Then we will be forever redeemed in full. Until then, we will have to suffer with having to continually be redeemed and sanctified every day.

All human beings, Christian or not, are sinners.  All Christians are simultaneously a saint and a sinner.  This is one of the teachings taught by Martin Luther.  It’s a teaching that some of my fundamentalist / conservative evangelicals do not grasp.  The thought of being a sinner haunts the core of who they are.  Or rather, it scares the crap out of them because they cannot bare the thought they might have some sort of inner moral imperfection.

You see, when a Christian who functions in the realm of works-righteousness, they are in full-time denial that they are morally imperfect.  It is hard work having to try to put on “a show” to prove they are “worthy of their calling.”  To deal with this life is to constantly live in a confused state.

Living the holy life for God

none of us are ever free from following rules in this world.  As human beings, we have a duty to our fellow humanity to be a better human being, to better our society, and to love our neighbor.

Folks, I don’t mean to demean piety, or minimize holy living, and put down the righteous lifestyle.  Not at all!  We love God because He loved us first.  Piety and holiness are the result or expression of our love and devotion to God.  When we feel loved by God, we can be so moved by the love of the Counsellor that we desire to live holy lives for God.  Our devotion always comes out of God’s deep love for us.  If a person has never experienced the deep love of God in their lives, what reason would he or she have to live holy lives for God?  There would be no reason.

This is another reason why one’s desire to live a holy life for God is never a barometer of one’s personal righteousness or morality.  We are the ones who decide to live a holy life for God. It is not a duty but a desire out of personal conviction. God does not force anyone to live a holy life for God.  It is always a personal decision to commit to such a life of devotion.

As the sinful hypocrites we are, we like to make a show of our piety and devotion to God.  Why?  We think it shows the world our own righteousness.  The thing is, our piety has nothing to do with our own righteousness.  Righteousness can only be from God, and it is only God’s to give.  Therefore, to try to prove to others our own righteousness would make us liars.  It’s fake and inauthentic.

People despise others who are fake and inauthentic are liars. One of the Ten Commandments is “You shall not lie.”  It is so ironic that rules-based religionists want to follow the Law but they still end up breaking the commandment to not tell a lie.

Spiritually and emotionally tuned people can smell fakeness an inauthenticity from a mile away.  It doesn’t take a Christian to pick up on fakeness.  When I see it in others, I smirk and think to myself, “Why the fakeness?  Why put up your show.  It only shows the deep insecurity in yourself.  It glaring and super obvious.”

The solution, then, is to be genuine.  We ought to be real and genuine before God, then and only then, can God have a place in one’s heart to welcome his Spirit into one’s life.

Many Christians who grew up in Christian homes, myself included, value and cherish our Christian heritage.  We wish to pass on our Christian devotion down to our children, and to our children’s children.  We just don’t want to pass on the baggage that comes along with rules-based religionism.

A pre-occupation with following a set of laws and rules can be spiritually damaging.  It inadvertently gives young people the false impression that Christianity is first and foremost about following rules, laws, and regulations.  That is not what Christianity is about.  It is really about receiving God’s grace through faith.

This faulty theology, and as subtle as it is, can also exist in many other denominations (Roman Catholic, evangelical, Reformed, etc.).  God forbid, it can even exist in some of our precious ethnic Chinese Lutheran churches.

ZionLutheranStoon
Zion Lutheran Church, Saskatoon. Location of ordination into Ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Why does faulty theology creep into the church?

Perhaps we feel insecure about having to fully trust in grace.  Why?  Grace is outside of our control. The gift of God’s grace is not within our control. Grace can only be a gift of God in Christ Jesus.

Yes, I know we hear this lingo spoken all the time.  It’s just that we don’t put “grace through faith” as the first priority in our Christian spirituality and practice.

We feel more in control when we can levy punishment and discipline on those who disobey the law.  This is a great temptation and the devil knows it.  An offer to control was what the devil used in order to tempt Jesus in the desert.

Example: I can discipline my child when he/she disobeys me or the household rules (e.g., not obeying curfew hours; playing too much video games; hitting another sibling or another kid; throwing temper-tantrums; etc.).

We like having the control.  We can levy punishment for social and civil disobedience because we feel it can curb bad behavior.  It’s positive punishment.

As a result of our rules-based Confucianized Christianity, Christians can seem like an intolerant bunch.  We judge a person first before offering forgiveness.  You know how mean cops will beat up the criminal or suspect first.  Second, get a confession out of him (false or true).  Third, forgiveness can come later or last.  But following rules come first.

I know the church has not done a good job at loving one another.  We put more faith in trying to correct one another’s behavior.

Please don’t misunderstand.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with following rules.  It’s just that being a Christian is not about following the law.  Being a Christian is not about living according to rules.

What?!!  No rules?  No this is not what I am saying. I know others who read this will still misinterpret what I am saying.  I am not saying forget about the rules.  Please keep reading.

Being a human being does require us to abide by laws, by good, fair and equitable laws.  It only helps to better society.  And yes, Confucius believed this too.  There!

The caveat to this is to understand that the following of rules and the law is NOT what makes one a Christian.

What makes a person a Christian is to trust in the grace of God for forgiveness of our sins.

What makes a person a Christian is not one’s rule-abiding behavior.  It simply cannot be in our ability to follow rules to the Tee.

Why not?

What if a Muslim, a Confucianist, a Buddhist, or a Hindu could follow laws just the same as Christians.  Would their following of rules make them a Christian too?

The answer is: … and I hope you agree… is “No.”

To make my point, what if a Muslim were to follow Christian biblical rules, would that then make a Muslim a Christian?

Beginning to sound like non-sense? I sure hope so. I hope you can see my point here.

ChinLutheranMission

The ONLY thing that defines a Christian is one’s trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins that comes through Christ.  It is totally about FAITH.  Faith is the ONLY thing that makes a person a Christian. Believing in the grace of God in Christ Jesus is the only thing that makes one a believer.  It is not behavior that makes one a believer.

Some of my fundamentalist or conservative evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ have been in-grained with the wrong teachings. I also was at one point in my life.

This false belief and false doctrine can weaken one’s genuine faith.  It can also lead to a worst thing–a total collapse of one’s faith in Jesus.

How so?  Take for instance, when a Christian witnesses a non-Christian behaving morally better than a Christian.  What can happen?  Doubt can set in.

I have heard this many times.  “That non-believer…or my Hindu friend, or Muslim friend behaves better than a Christian.” If it is behavior that defines a Christian, then we are not trusting in faith.  We are trusting in behavior.

We have planted our own seeds of doubt.  It causes a false belief.  When that false belief germinates and grows, the spiritual result can only be disastrous.

We become disappointed in ourselves and other Christian for not being able to hold to “good Christian” behavior.  Doubt sets in.  Disappointment in Christianity sets in.  This can easily lead to loss of faith and possibly agnosticism or even atheism.  It’s no wonder we have so many casualties, and that our churches are slowly emptying out.

I know this is a lot to take in.  From the surface, it does’t seem possible that this false doctrine of works-righteousness can lead to atheism or loss of faith.

I have thought long and hard about this.  I believe this false doctrine in our evangelical churches has contributed to the loss of faith.

I also believe that the loss of many of our young people, and even generations of young people, have caused a decline in the wider universal/catholic church.

The great temptation is to believe more in following rules than we do believing in God’s grace.  What, then, is grace for?  And how is grace to be applied in our Christian walk?

Answer is: there would not be any further use for grace. Why bother trusting in grace when we can trust in good human behavior?

If we trust more in humanity’s good behavior, good behavior then becomes our salvation. Good behavior becomes the measuring stick that determines who is a “good Christian.”

You know what?  Humanism precisely takes this very idea, except with a different twist.  Humanism absolutely believes in the potential of human beings ability to be perfect.  Perfection in the human is the ultimate goal.  We aren’t there yet so we have to keep trying and working to perfect ourselves as human beings and as “good human beings.”  This is pure New Age philosophy.

star trek no has gone

In a funny way, we have become the Star Trek generation of Christendom.  Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, would have been pleased where the evangelical church has come.  We have gone “where no one has gone before.” We are trying to be better human beings through good works.

Belief and faith is more challenging to the average person.  I know that.  There is no real way to measure faith.  We cannot see faith. It is not visible.  Hebrews 11:1 says:

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (NIV)

We’ve been trained to trust that one’s actions speak louder than words.  We are more willing to believe that we can trust one’s behavior becasue faith is something we cannot see.

We fail to trust that one’s actions can be true indicators of one’s faith.  It is, and it isn’t.  From a human level, yes, it’s true.  But in terms of the gospel, it’s cannot be true.

As a result of our doubt concerning faith alone, the only thing we can trust then, will be one’s right actions and behavior.  Human actions and behaviors are so very fleeting.  It comes and goes when it pleases. When we are having a good week or good day, we manage to perform well.

When we’re having a tough day or a tough week, or it’s stressful, we might not do so well.  When we know we haven’t performed up to standard.  We can either hide our failures and behave hypocritically.  Or we can accuse others of performing below par in order to make ourselves look better.  There is no way out of this predicament.  It is a predicament of shame and guilt.

It is no wonder we have such a difficult time with Paul’s doctrine of “grace through faith.”  We have a hard time grasping the full impact of this doctrine, especially when we have to look through our lenses of works-righteousness.

God help the Church!  We ought to pray for our churches, our congregations and parishes.  We have to pray for repentance because we have fallen for fables and false doctrines.

To us who’ve been enlightened by the doctrines of grace, may our desire to live rightly continue to come as a result of God’s love poured out into us. It is about having faith alone in Christ, and trusting that in Christ alone, through God’s grace alone,  God will make us pure, righteous and sanctified.

I know that has been a long blog post.  Thanks for taking the time to read up to the end.

+Grace to you my friends.

Day 1: Good news: I’m free from sin

Free from sin. I am freer today than before. Not that I sin any less. I am still the same sinner-saved-by-grace that I was before. I’m just now not bound by the guilt and shame.

Guilt and shame is what many Christians struggle with.  For some, it’s everyday.  For others,  it’s when they’re reminded of their past; and others, it’s when their cover has been blown.

I was raised to believe that appearance was very important.  I grew up in a Chinese church.  In many of these East Asian churches, appearance is of utmost importance.  It is important in one’s status and respect.  If one’s cover is suddenly blown, it can be a very tragic situation because one’s respect plummets.  One can get kicked out of the board, responsibilities as a Sunday school teacher removed, etc.  Some of you might know what I mean.  Even if you didn’t grow-up in a Chinese church but was raised in a more fundamentalist/evangelical church, you may identify with this.

Some people I have had heart-to-heart conversations with knew exactly what I was talking about. However, they would tread carefully and never let their guard down.  Failing to maintain their appearance meant losing their social status in the congregation.  This might be true for many Christians out there today.  The result: one ends up leaving the congregation and switching churches due to loss of reputation.

I had believed a false belief that obeying the law could someone  earn me spiritual merit-points before God.   And if it didn’t then it could some how earn me merit points within the congregation.  At the time, it was good enough motivation for me to act or appear more holy and righteous. However, deep inside, I knew my own thoughts, desires, and hidden things were less than pure in God’s sight.

If one were to admit to these sinful thoughts, it would be too much to disclose to one’s own congregation members.  What would the pastor or elders think?!  It’s easy for me to see this now because I’ve distanced myself from this self-righteous and hypocritical church culture.

This t

ype of self-righteousness is exactly the reason why some people don’t want to go anywhere near a church. They say the church is full of hypocrites… and it’s true.  If “worldly people” were to ever step foot into a church, they would have to change their thoughts and behavior, and have a time-limit to start putting on a show that they are worthy of Christ’s righteousness.  Behavior is a sign of how Christ has changed them (or is it really how they have changed their own behavior or how well they hide their sins?).  Whoops.  I hope the truth doesn’t hurt too much.  Well, if I can’t meet the biblical-standard of that congregation, then I better not even attend church.  That’s how most normal people think anyway.  This is why churches have emptied-out and are full of white-haired elderly people.  Not that this is bad, but truth is, where are the young people and young families in the church?

Over time and in a study of theology, the good news of the truth slowly sunk-in and was revealed to me.  I had blinders on for decades because the church had failed to teach the truth about the gospel.  It knew the gospel but it didn’t really see it clearly. I’m not bashing the church.  Entire denominations can fail to see things from different perspectives because it’s always been their ethos and culture. There is not a hidden agenda–just blinders that keep us from seeing the truth from another angle.

I had finally learned that appearance was not useful in God’s sight.  Keeping an appearance would only make me feel better about myself because I believed that I had succeeded that day without committing a “big sin.”  For “good” Christians out there who can identify with this type of moralism and religiosity–whether Catholic or Evangelical, it can be very hard work. Why so? Because one has to “put on a show” to look good.  In the church, we have a lot of good actors.  We become very good at looking good.  We even try to do good things, good deeds, and appear to walk-the-talk.  We value the respect we receive from other fellow congregation members for not being “big sinners.”

The down-side is: eventually we get worn-down. It’s not easy to put on a false appearance 24-hours a day. Eventually, several things happen. We might just give up, throw in the towel and call it quits with Church, or we become so guilt-ridden that it tears us apart inside and we stop going to church or stop telling people we are Christian or are “religious.”  It’s safer to tell people that we’re not religious.  It leaves us room to still believe inside but not act Christian outwardly.  But is this a victorious Christian life that the Apostle Paul describes? No! Absolutely not. This type of Christianity is merely “Church-ianity”.  It’s fake, a false replica and plastic.  It’s what Jesus taught against and labelled as hypocrisy.   It’s what Paul called the Church on when they tried to use circumcision as a proof of a true believer.

God can set us free from having to fulfill what church-ianity tells us are the mandatory requirements of having to be, and do, good. Doing good can never make a person a “better Christian.”  Being a better Christian can only come through faith.  By believing the blood of Jesus continually cleanses and sanctifies us is the only thing that makes us holy and righteous before God–even though we might fail to appear holy.

God has set me free from sin.  I’m continually being sanctified. This revelation has drawn me closer to God. Truth is, God was, and is always pleased with me–just because I am a child of God, and not because of what I do. I am now ever more convinced that God loves me and it compels me to abide closer to God.  This unconditional love and mercy of God makes me desire to do better and live life worthy of Christ’s calling.

Believing in this good news is what makes a Christian spiritually mature. Spiritual maturity is NOT how holy and righteous a person appears in front of others. It corresponds only with one’s degree of faith in believing this profound truth. Amen?

Doing Good Works: Praying, Fasting, Charitable Giving

Some devoted Christians around the world will be observing Holy Week starting this coming Saturday till Sunday, 9-15th of April 2017. For many this can be set aside as a holy time for praying, fasting, giving alms and doing charitable deeds to help the underprivileged. What a special time!


An angel in Acts, announced to the devoted Cornelius that his prayers of thanksgiving and almsgiving were remembered by God. He is about to come to know Christ.  Acts 10:3-4 says,

3 “About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror, and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God…” (RSV)

Here’s a seemingly simplistic but a spiritual question:
If God recognizes and remembers our prayers and charitable giving, then shouldn’t we be encouraged to pray more and give more? 

Our obvious answer would naturally be “Yes!” but our good works of praying and almsgiving can either be both a good work or they can be done purely out of genuine faith.  Martin Luther cautioned that none of our good works can earn any merit toward our salvation, or earn God’s recognition to merit more approval.  According to Paul, our human righteousness is worthless as rags.  Salvation and good works ought to be done only in faith.

Now here’s a bit of theology to get your head around… If you are past the “human religion” stage and couldn’t care less about trying to earn salvation or earn God’s favor by being a good person, then that’s great!  You are set free to act in good faith to move on to do even more good works.  Since you’ve already been created into God’s beloved child, then you are set free from a human striving in order to please God (see Luther’s quote below).

Be encouraged to observe Holy Week with passion. Pray more, fast more, and be more charitable. Praise the Lord! Do your good works boldly. God loves it and hears it. 

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Martin Luther states in his A Treastise on Good Works (1520):

XVI. But you say: How can I trust surely that all my works are pleasing to God, when at times I fall, and talk, eat, drink and sleep too much, or otherwise transgress, as I cannot help doing? Answer: This question shows that you still regard faith as a work among other works, and do not set it above all works. For it is the highest work for this very reason, because it remains and blots out these daily sins by not doubting that God is so kind to you as to wink at such daily transgression and weakness. Aye, even if a deadly sin should occur (which, however, never or rarely happens to those who live in faith and trust toward God), yet faith rises again and does not doubt that its sin is already gone;…

James 2 vs doctrine of justification by faith

On the surface, there seems to be two seemingly contradictory ideas between: 1/ James and his faith proved by action in James 2, and, 2/ Luther’s doctrine of justification that we cannot be saved by our good works.  I’ve heard Christians present James as a counter-argument to the doctrine of justification by faith.

The Reformational teaching of justification by grace thru faith says that we cannot be saved by our good works because we are all imperfect sinners at heart.  Our works will never be good enough for God. We can only be saved through our faith in Jesus.  The Apostle Paul taught, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28). Ditto in Rom. 4:5; 11:6; Gal. 2:16, 3:5-6; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9, plus many more.

James 2:20-24 seems to juxtapose an alternate view of faith and action:
“20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”

These are two different ideas.  There is no contradiction here but it seems so easy to confuse these two ideas.