What is holding the Gospel back?

Why is the gospel faltering in the first world? 

Many  would be quick to  blame the overall environment: The rise of secularism, philosophical postmodernism, political correctness, or the abandonment of the Judea-Christian ethic–the  world ‘out there’. But is Christianity really that ‘intrinsically’ weak, that it needs to be coupled to a sympathetic world to prosper? Indeed, such suggestions only reveal contemporary Christianity’s unhealthy relationship with the modern world. 

No, the problem is not ‘out there’, it is much closer to home. Allow me to elaborate…

In my early Christian life I took commitment to Jesus at face value. By that I mean, if a person believed in Jesus and went to church, they were a Christian; if they  didn’t confess Christ as Lord and did not go to church–they were not. It was black and white–no shades of grey. 

Nominal Christianity (Christian in name only) I could understand, but the notion of the carnal Christian ( one who openly professed to believe in Jesus, and yet lived as if Jesus was not lord) was foreign to me. Of course, there were moral inconsistences in a believer’s life, but I had  determined this was simply on account of the ‘new’ Christian unlearning their ‘pagan’ ways,  overcoming their ignorance, as they moved toward a greater awareness of revealed truth and the need to practise it. 

Yet, with the passage of time, and as I reflected on the frames of religious tradition through my varied experiences among Christians from different backgrounds, I saw nuanced details about the Christian life that I was previously blind toward. I discovered that carnal Christians actually did exist. 

So, what is a carnal believer? The word carnal, is derived from the Latin carnis, which means flesh (literally meat). To be carnal is to live according to the flesh, to have one’s life moral ordered by material,  worldly, appetites. With reference to Christianity, believers who are carnal, are those who live inconsistently with their allegiance to Jesus and the spiritual calling of the Christian on account of their allegiance to their natural desires. They are carnal  in the way they live because they are either,  ignorant of God’s truth, inconsistent in their practice of known truth, or though fully aware of moral truth are deliberately disobedient to it. Though the first two categories could be reconciled on the grounds of ignorance or immaturity, but the final category of carnal ‘Christian’, I find quite disturbing. Despite knowing the truth, they fail to amend their ways; living as if this world is all that matters–in the way of all flesh!

Moreover, I was further vexed because the evangelical tradition I was associated with, did not recognize the category of carnal Christian. For them, they were simply justified believers who were yet to be sanctified. Yet,  this was not the kind of Christian faith exhibited in the New Testament, where those who followed Jesus led radically transformed lives. 

Then I read the Bible. It is astounding what you discover when you actually ‘read’ Holy Scripture!

In the past, I often found myself skimming through the pages of the Bible, looking at every second or third word, impatiently seeking to grasp the meaning of some theological point or pastoral application. By doing so, I would lazily allow my mind to fill in the details along the way, subtly implanting my ideas into the text of Holy Scripture, and in so doing, consoling my intellectual ‘self’ that the ‘main point’ was all that really mattered. But, the Bible is not merely a primary document for theological research, sermon preparation, or a comforting ‘thought for the day’. I had come to see, that by blindly focusing on ‘my’ theological, pastoral, or devotional agenda, I was failing to see what God was really saying in the text; I was failing to notice that those small details carry ideas of great theological significance and moral weight.

So how is this relevant to our discussion on the carnal Christian? Well, I was reading Acts 19:1-20, and it’s truth powerfully hit me.

This passage outlines the missionary exploits of Paul in Ephesus, and how a particular event, not of Paul’s direct instigation, precipitated a breakthrough for the gospel in that city. The text outlines the seemingly comical story of the seven sons of Sceva ( a Jewish chief priest), who were practicing exorcisms. In the account, the seven self-styled itinerant exorcists, were beaten up by a demon-possessed man, following an failed exorcism as they falsely tried to invoke the name of Jesus without a genuine acquaintance with him. Even the demon possessing the beleaguered man, had a more profound understanding of Jesus than these witless pretenders:  ‘ But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?”‘ Acts 19:15 (ESV) Then the demon, in empowering a rage within the man it possessed, mercilessly beat all seven would-be exorcists. 

And what was the outcome of this strange engagement? ‘ And this became known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who lived in Ephesus; and fear fell upon them all and the name of the Lord Jesus was being magnified. Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of all; and they counted up the price of them and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.’ Acts 19:17-20 (NAS)

Now, on a cursory reading of scripture, the event resulted in the alleged conversion of a number of individuals involved in occult practices, who out of fearful respect of Jesus’ name, burnt their valuable magic books and unreservedly followed Him. It’s simply a story about the gospel breaking the stronghold of evil in the city of Ephesus. But lets look at it more closely… 

‘Many also of those who had believed kept coming, confessing and disclosing their practices. And many of those who practiced magic brought their books together and began burning them in the sight of all;’ Acts 19: 18-19 (NAS)

In the original Greek text, the [one] word  for those who had believed, is in the perfect tense. That is, it represents an action as already completed at the present time. Furthermore, it is a participle–that is a verb representing continuous action. When a perfect participle occurs, it conveys a sense of a perpetual state of completion which acts as a bridge between the past and the present. Thus, it  can be translated, as those who actively believed in the past, and are continuing to believe in the present. Of course, the past might be one day before, one month before, or one year before. But, whatever the timeframe, we do know that those who had believed, either on account of this event or had believed prior to it, decided to act decisively on their moral inconsistencies.  

Indeed, the event precipitated a landslide of true repentance among either new believers or standing members of the believing community in Ephesus–those who had believed and continue believing. So much so, that it prompted those ignorant of, or complacent about,  the exclusivity of Jesus’ lordship over their lives, to address their deeply held sins. Having believed, and now been enlightened to the truth through the powerful revelation of the Lordship of Jesus, albeit uncovered by an angry demon’s confession and actions, they made major alterations to their lives–they confessed their occult practices and burnt the associated instruments; an event of renown, because the objects destroyed were worth a large amount of money. 

Seriously challenged to reconsider just how weighty a thing it was to treat the name of Jesus with contempt, by secretly endorsing customs God hated, these believers truly repented. Now, what was equally astounding was the speed of the moral transformation. This was no gradual path to maturity via sanctification, it was a crisis that instigated an immediate change!  Having engaged the truth of Jesus’ lordship, these transformed believers translated that belief into action, costly action, irrevocable action. From now on, any notion of believing in Jesus whilst hanging on to ones former life-dependencies was simply inconceivable. For such as these, carnal Christianity was no longer an option!

Furthermore, and this is significant, the consequences of this deep repentance echoed throughout the city, and probably the whole region. Where, on account of the event and its powerful transformative influence, the name of Jesus being was greatly revered and the gospel spread…

‘ So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily’ Acts 19:20 (ESV)

So, as we consider the events as they unfolded in ancient Ephesus, we must ask the question, ‘Was the pagan culture holding back the gospel or was it something else?’ Plainly it was something else. And what was that something else? Simply this, a lack of appreciation for the power and authority of Jesus–his lordship. A lack that was proven by Christians holding onto deeply entrenched practices and dependencies that were fundamentally in opposition to Christ’s kingdom. 

Once those believing fully appreciated this, they responded with substantive action. As a consequence, God began to work powerfully. The gospel message spread more quickly and had a more powerful influence than ever before; simply because Jesus was appropriately esteemed–at the deepest level. 

Now, we must not become smug and thing that ‘those pagans’ really needed to straighten out their misguided ways, their strange occult practices; whereas we are not hiding such nasty secrets. Don’t be so sure.

Remember, occult practices were simply ways of building a hedge against future uncertainty by tapping into the spirit world–a realm of influence which offered a secret knowledge and power that could be used to enhance one’s material life. Yes, it was inappropriate on account of its dark affiliations, but equally inappropriate in as much as it offered dependency on a form of power, other than God. It effectively, undermined the lordship of Jesus on both levels.

But, how many contemporary individual Christians and Churches are tapping into modern sources of godless dependency?  How many have become dependent on the secret powers of human science: Management models, electronic technology, financial techniques, marketing strategies, modern medicine, philosophical modes of reasoning, and psychological methods of addressing problems? In short, is the contemporary state of the church and the world it inhabits, really that different to  ancient Ephesus? 

So, why don’t we see God working powerfully as he did in the past, or even as he does in third world countries?  I suspect the solution is much closer than we think–as close as our own hearts. 

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