Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Forgotten Gospel

A men’s study group I belong to recently wanted to discuss the issue they saw posed in Hebrews 6, where the writer states, “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:4-6).

The question that intrigued my fellow group members was whether a person can “lose his salvation.” A lively discussion produced no consensus, as is so often the case with problematic Bible passages — but that is not the matter I want to discuss here. What intrigued me was that phrase “those who have once been enlightened.” The author of Hebrews seems to link “enlightenment” with the receiving of the benefits of what we commonly call salvation. The person who comes to Christ comes, first of all, because he has been enlightened. He has absorbed certain information; a certain knowledge has been imparted to him.

I was reminded that the early Christian church, in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, made a point of thanking the Lord for the knowledge that has come through Christ. In a passage in the Didache, the earliest (second century) account of a Christian worship gathering, the leader prays over the bread in this way:

We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever.

In the same vein, after the worshipers have received the bread and the cup the leader prays as follows:

We thank You, holy Father, for Your holy name which You caused to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory for ever.

The stress on the enlightenment that comes through Jesus is unmistakable here. The eucharistic (thanksgiving) prayer does not focus upon the shed blood and broken body of Jesus, but rather on the abiding presence of the Father (His “holy name”) and the knowledge the worshiper now enjoys as a result of Christ’s coming. Normally, when evangelicals of today partake of the Lord’s Supper they focus on the sacrifice of the cross that atones for our sin. That note is absent in this earliest ordered account of a Christian worship service centered around the Lord’s Table.

What do we make of this? Had the second-century church already lost the significance of the Lord’s Supper as the remembrance of Christ’s death, and instead turned the Supper into a celebration of the sort of “head knowledge” that preachers often deride as a substitute for true commitment to the Lord?

I hardly think so, for the New Testament itself often mentions the knowledge, or enlightenment, that Christ brings into the world. In addition to the passage from Hebrews cited above we have the powerful image with which John begins his Gospel: “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not” (John 1:9-10). The apostle Paul might be driving toward this same thought when he prays for the Ephesians “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you" (Ephesians 1:17-18). Paul tells the Colossians that he has been praying for them also, “that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Colossians 1:9). And to Timothy he writes of “God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). True knowledge, understanding, or enlightenment is a key to being saved.

This raises the question of what it means to be “saved.” Biblically, salvation is deliverance or rescue. In the Scriptures, salvation is not usually related to sin — other words, such as “cleansed,” are used — or to heaven, which is the abode of the God who delivers. Most often, in Scripture, salvation is deliverance from some threatening external situation such as enemy oppression or attack. (See our study What Is Salvation? on the Laudemont Ministries web site.)

In the first recorded Christian preaching, Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost, salvation is deliverance from “this crooked generation” — that is, from a culture whose twisted thinking blinds it to the ways of God (Acts 2:40). To be rescued from this faulty paradigm a person must first come to a new understanding of reality, or to repentance (the New Testament term, metanoia, literally means a “change of mind”). This intellectual enlightenment is what initiates the process by which a person is rescued from his oppressing environment.

It was enlightenment concerning Jesus’s resurrection, as evidenced by the gift of the Holy Spirit and the explanation Peter offered, that persuaded the earliest Christian converts to change their minds about Jesus and acknowledge Him as Messiah. Those who had taken part in His crucifixion came to a new understanding that caused them to seek membership in Jesus, through baptism (Acts 2:21). They had to lay aside a false paradigm, or world view, that prevented them from recognizing the work of God in their midst. The same enlightenment came to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road through the appearance of the risen Jesus; he was forced to change his mind about Jesus, in a radical turn-around of his entire way of life.

This enlightenment, or knowledge, that God imparts through Jesus Christ is often the forgotten Gospel in evangelical preaching today. Sometimes worshipers are told to accept Christian truths “on faith,” without engaging in a deep intellectual grappling with them. People are not encouraged to explore the coherence of the Bible’s world view, or to understand how it synchronizes with knowledge arrived at through other avenues such as science — particularly cosmology, the study of the origin and nature of the universe. Forgotten is Paul’s assertion that “ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). The result is ineffective congregations of Christians who are simply flitting around the edges of churchiness, mouthing standardized formulas of doctrine and devotion without being penetrated by the knowledge that exposes the false values of their surrounding culture.

The second-century Christians whose worship gathering is recorded in the Didache, in giving thanks to God, celebrated “the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant.” Their insight was biblically based. Without the knowledge that comes from Christ his followers would be unable to do what Paul says we do, to “destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Without an intellectual grasp of a coherent biblical world view Christians are liable to be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Ephesians 4:14). We need to recover, and be informed by, the forgotten Gospel: “The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him . . .”