A man pulled up and stopped his car in the street next to my home in a small town in Texas. I had just parked my own car and gotten out. I didn’t know the man. He knew I was a pastor, maybe because I was living in the parsonage of a church. He looked distressed as he stood next to his car. I don’t remember all of his exact words but the gist of what he said was, “Can God forgive me for what I’ve done?” He seemed desperate. I assured him of God’s love and willingness to forgive any wrongdoing. He started getting back in his car, shaking his head. I do remember his last words: “No, God can’t forgive me!” He drove away and I never saw him again.
Some people see God like that: I’ve done things so bad and so often that God cannot or will not forgive me.
I think many more people see it a little differently: there is something I need to do that will make a good enough impression on God or will meet his requirements well enough that he will forgive and accept me. That something may be a religious rule or ritual or activity that God has put in place for us to perform. Or it may be practicing a general everyday life of treating other people well – most others anyway; there must be a few exceptions – “17 miles out in the ocean and I still can’t get away from lawyers” (Jethro Gibbs, NCIS). Another way that seems would make us acceptable to God is to live by the principle expressed as “I do the best I can” or “I stay true to myself” or “I follow my heart.”
This idea of how to be accepted by God is the religious form of the cultural idea of making it on your own: work hard and earn what you get, there’s no free lunch, you get what you deserve, be worthy of love. It is the well-worn and often-praised principle: pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
How will a radicalized Christian see this? Is Christianity any different than other religions and viewpoints?
Many Christians will quickly answer, “Yes, God accepts us by grace.” Okay. How are we putting that into real life? How far are we taking that? How radical is God’s grace?
This radical: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1, NIV) “No.” None. Nada. Nil. Zero. Zilch. No condemnation.
Let’s be clear. This applies to all people “who are in Christ Jesus.” “No condemnation” is true for every person who is united to Jesus by faith. Verse 3 explains why this is true: “For what the law was powerless to do…God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.” The law did not have the power to make us acceptable to God. Jesus did. He made us acceptable by taking away our guilt by offering himself to death on the cross. So anyone who depends on Christ and his offering to be acceptable to God is not condemned.
No condemnation from God – no put down, no judgment, no rejection, no disapproval. God completely accepts and totally approves.
There is no time when God condemns.
There is no situation in which God condemns.
There is no place where God condemns.
There is no action that brings God’s condemnation.
There is no inaction that brings God’s condemnation.
There are no words that bring God’s condemnation.
There is no thought that brings God’s condemnation.
There is no person whom God condemns.
No blame, no shame, no denunciation, no censure, no scorn for anyone who has faith in Christ.
So, there is nothing that needs to be done to get out from under condemnation. There is nothing for you to do or not do for God to accept you – and acceptance is not God reluctantly putting up with you; it’s God gladly welcoming you as his own. The Message translation of Romans 8:1 says, ” Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud.” There’s no condemnation, there’s no low-lying black cloud, so there’s nothing to do to get out from under it.
Nothing. You don’t need to promise God that you will do better so he will accept you. You don’t have to make up for your wrongdoing for God to approve of you. You don’t have to repent for God to start favoring you. You don’t even have to ask God to forgive you to get him to forgive you! You’re already forgiven (Ephesians 1:7). There’s nothing to do. God fully, completely, absolutely accepts you with no condemnation.
Yes, this is radical, far-reaching, too much for some people. In Brennan Manning’s book “The Ragamuffin Gospel” he teaches this radical idea of God’s grace. You should read it. Ten years after it first came out, Manning added a chapter to the original and described some of the reaction that had come his way:
“I have been denounced publicly and privately as a heretic, schismatic, universalist, and cockeyed optimist… I have been labeled unbalanced, spiritually immature, and intellectually unhinged. The gospel of grace continues to scandalize. The legalists, puritans, prophets of doom, and moral crusaders are having a hissy fit over the Pauline teaching of justification by faith. They take umbrage at the freedom of the children of God and dismiss it as licentiousness. They do not want Christianity to help us become whole but to feel wretched under its burden.” 1
Some think Christianity is a religion of rules, performance, achievement, control, and hard work. They default to that way of thinking because it seems like the responsible way to live faithfully and pleasing to God. It’s the way the real world works, right? But it’s not the way we follow Jesus. It can’t be. If we attempt to make ourselves acceptable to God by pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps, we will discover the bootstraps are broken. We can’t do it. We don’t have to. The heart of radical Christianity is the radical love of God in Christ Jesus.
I went on a spiritual retreat, alone in the mountains of northern Colorado. I was going through a hard time, struggling with some issues in my life. I spent most of the first day reading Scripture and a book. That night I built a campfire and looked up at the star-filled sky. The Lord grabbed my soul and reminded me that the Jesus who made all that loves me personally even when I struggle. He didn’t just say he loved me – I felt his love pouring into me. There’s a worship song that says, “In moments like these I sing out a love song to Jesus…” I started to sing that, but God said, “No, don’t sing. Let me sing to you.” (See Zephaniah 3:17) I didn’t hear with my ears, but I felt with my heart Jesus singing: “in moments like these I sing out a song, I sing out a love song to Mike, singing ’I love you, Mike,’ singing ’I love you, Mike,’ singing ’I love you, Mike, I love you.’”
The really astonishing thing is even when I am at my lowest, vilest, most guilty and shameful, God “rejoices over me with singing.” God loves and accepts and approves of me with absolutely no condemnation.
This is radical Christianity. Be radicalized. Believe that there is no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus. Release your bootstraps. Instead of asking God to forgive your sins tonight, just thank him that you are forgiven. Accept God’s acceptance. Embrace the Father’s grace. Allow Jesus to apply all that he has accomplished to your mind and soul. Permit the Spirit to sing his love into your spirit.
1 Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Multnomah Publishers, Sisters, Oregon, 2000), p.223
You’ve heard the term “radicalized Muslim” being used to describe people who have joined terrorist groups such as ISIS. It refers to a person who was living a basically peaceful and harmless existence then was convinced somehow to adopt a terrorist mindset and join a jihadist group or commit acts of terror on their own. “Radical” is one of those weird words that has different, sort of conflicting, usages. It means fundamental, basic, primary, or literally “root.” But it’s also used for extreme, drastic, far-reaching, and fanatical. The second way is how it’s used in the phrase “radicalized Muslim” – the person has taken Islamic doctrine and purposes to the extreme. Becoming a drastic Muslim results in mass shootings and suicide bombings. Most Muslims would say that is not the fundamental and basic meaning of Islam (Marrakesh Declaration). The radicals, the extremists, would say that it is. Now, I’m not going to attempt to explore anything about radical, or any other style of, Islam. It’s just that the phrase “radicalized Muslim” got me thinking: what about “radicalized Christian?” What mindset would a radicalized Christian have? What actions would a radicalized Christian take?
I am fully aware that some people have taken Christianity to an extreme point and committed acts no different from those of ISIS and Boko Haram: abortion clinic bombers, the Inquisition, John Calvin’s persecution and execution of those he considered heretics, and the KKK, to name a few. Christianity CAN be radicalized into a jihadist movement.
But that’s NOT where I’m going with this. (I know you’re relieved.) There is another kind of radicalization. Here’s what I’m thinking: a radicalized Christian is the basic, primary meaning of living by faith in Jesus Christ. The essence of following Christ will be extreme and far-reaching when compared to not following Christ. There are 3 basic, primary and unavoidably related truths that make this so.
The first is our belief that Jesus is Lord. To say that Jesus is Lord does not simply mean that he is God. He is God, but there’s more (amazingly!) to it than that. At the time of Jesus’ incarnation and the early years of Christianity, people were being told “Caesar is Lord.” The emperor of Rome is Lord; all authority belongs to him; he is in charge; he is running things. Paul and John and Peter and all the Christians said, “No, he’s not. Jesus is.” Jesus has taken authority over all. His place is above any and every ruler, power, and dominion. He is Lord. He is King, and his Kingdom overshadows all other kingdoms – spiritual, political, economic, and personal. Now, in 2016, Jesus is Lord. He is in charge. He reigns.
The second truth is the Kingdom of God has come. If Jesus is Lord, then his Kingdom has come. When Jesus was raised from the dead, he launched his Kingdom. It’s here; it’s active; it’s real. It helps me to think about the Kingdom as the culture that we live in. Culture is the massive, complex set of beliefs, customs, and social behaviors that influence your attitudes, values, priorities, and practices. You do what you do largely because of the culture you are embedded in. We are called to live in Christ’s culture (Matthew 6:33). Our beliefs and attitudes and goals come from the fact that we believe in and follow Jesus and he makes us into a new kind of people. Our customs, values, and behaviors are shaped more by God’s presence and ways than by the human culture we grow up in or live in.
The third truth that shows that following Jesus means being radicalized is this: there is another ruler and kingdom operating in the world. Jesus called that ruler “the prince of this world” (John 12:31). Paul called that ruler “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and John identified him as “the great dragon…that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan” (Revelation 12:9). Going back to the beginning: instead of continuing to rule the world God created as partners with him, humans went our own way. We sinned and corrupted the world. We sinned and brought chaos. We sinned and brought death. And instead of being partners with God, that rebellion made us partners with the Ultimate Sinner. The world has been under the dominion of a being who intended to rule forever in rebellion against God and who was quite satisfied for humans to keep on doing things their way because that meant they were really doing things his way. Paul said “the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers.” John said he “leads the whole world astray.” We’ve been scammed. We’ve been deceived into accepting a way of living that is not in line with truth and reality. This is the way of life that results from not following Christ.
So, when a person lives under the Lordship of Jesus and in the culture of his Kingdom, that person will believe and do things that are radically different from living outside Jesus’ Lordship and Kingdom. Following Jesus is an extremely different world.
A man in the Jerusalem church named Stephen was doing miracles and telling about Jesus being the Messiah. The Jewish leaders took him into custody and interrogated him. Again he told them that Jesus is the Messiah and they had killed him. The leaders got angrier, and Acts 7:55 says, “But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Then this happened: “When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him… They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ Having said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:58-60). He died. You’ve heard someone else say those things as he died: “‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing… Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:34 & 46) Stephen saw Jesus at God’s right hand. He saw Jesus the Lord reigning. That didn’t stop his enemies. It didn’t stop the stoning. It didn’t keep him from dying. When Stephen saw Jesus reigning, he acted like Jesus!
When we know Jesus reigns, when we believe and accept that he is Lord, when we live under his authority and according to his Kingdom, we become like him. We act like him. We feel like him. When we know he is in charge and he is giving us a better way to live and he is loving us and leading us, then we become like him. We will be radicalized.
I am afraid that, generally speaking, we have settled for less.
I am going to write a series of articles addressing several beliefs, attitudes, and actions that would characterize a radicalized Christian. I am not claiming that I have reached a radicalized condition myself. Becoming like Jesus is a life-long process. But I think we need to understand as clearly as we can what it looks like to be radicalized. Then we can be less “led astray.” Then we can have a vision for the kind of people we can be and the actions we can take. We can have a goal.
In a way, to say something is radical is relative. A certain way of thinking or acting may seem wildly extreme to some Christians while it seems just normal everyday living to others. For example, believers living under severe persecution will be doing some things that we Christians living in a free society can’t imagine. And the other way around. Of course, I’ll be writing from the perspective of a follower of Christ living in the US in 2016.
Think about this yourself. What would you consider radical Christianity? What teachings or examples in the Bible do you see as far-reaching? Should we be following them now? Or, how have you been radicalized – what is different about you as a result of following Jesus? And, how can we go about getting radicalized?