The Faith

What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters
By Charles W. Colson Harold Fickett

Zondervan

Copyright © 2008 Charles W. Colson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-27603-6


Chapter One

EVERYWHERE, ALWAYS, BY ALL

What we witnessed at Nickel Mines and in the times of the Roman plagues is true Christianity-sacrificial love, concern for all people, forgiveness and reconciliation, evil overcome by good. These two examples, drawn from thousands I might have selected, represent signs of the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus and lived by His followers to this day.

Admittedly, Christianity has not always been practiced this way. Christians are fallen, flawed, and broken people who often profess one thing and do another. But contrary to the public misconceptions about Christianity today, the Christian Church and the truth it defends are the most powerful life- and culture-changing forces in human history. This enduring truth has been tested and proven true over two thousand years.

Christianity-The Enduring Truth

My wife, Patty, and I were visiting London on a ministry trip some years ago. We found a few free hours one day for sightseeing and visited Christopher Wren's architectural masterpiece, St. Paul's Cathedral, in the heart of the old city. Hundreds of visitors were milling around, looking at the art treasures and sculptures, admiring the grand rotunda above. One look at the narrow walkway curling upward into the dome cured us of any desire to climb the steps.

To our surprise, an Anglican Mass was being celebrated at the high altar and, interestingly, broadcast over the loudspeakers. Most of the sightseers regarded it as little more than Muzak. But we made our way to a back pew and sat among perhaps a hundred other worshipers.

Although I am from a low-church tradition, I found myself caught up in the beauty of the liturgy, riveted by its scriptural basis. We decided to take a few minutes to sit quietly and enjoy the power of the Word in such a glorious setting.

We were caught up in the church's history. I remembered Winston Churchill's funeral had been conducted here in 1965, and we had visited the memorial chapel that commemorates the American contribution to winning World War II. The history of St. Paul's extends back through the centuries. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) contributed to repairs after a lightning strike. A side chapel is dedicated to St. Dunstan, who almost single-handedly revived British Christianity in the tenth century after the Danish invasions, and no doubt he had a hand in the St. Paul's of his day.

When the ser vice reached the acclamation-"Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!"-I was struck by the realization that the congregation and casual sightseers alike were listening to the heart of the Gospel, which was being proclaimed with force and power as it had been on this very spot for at least 1,400 years, when the first St. Paul's was built, and likely earlier, back to Roman times. The same Gospel-every doctrine-was rooted in Scripture, given by the apostles, and expressed in the creeds of the early Church. Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.

I whispered my thoughts to Patty, who nodded in agreement. The realization sent shivers up our spines. "The faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints" (Jude v. 3) was being boldly proclaimed from this altar, and hundreds of unsuspecting tourists, if inadvertently, were soaking it in. It has always been this way and always will be!

Then I had a second moment of inspiration as I realized that our ancient faith provided answers to the deepest questions in the hearts of all those visiting St. Paul's that day and to secularized Britain as a whole. This witness was being given in the heart of a cosmopolitan city and in a nation that has largely turned against God in increasingly desperate times. The Christian West is under assault by the twin challenges of secularism and radical Islam-whose roots have some unsuspected likenesses. Only through Christianity, I believe, can Western Europe and America meet these desperate challenges.

Even as we sat there, radical Islam was transforming Britain's capital into "Londonistan." The city's underground and buses were soon to be bombed by these radicals, confronting secular society with a religiously motivated challenge it could not comprehend. Only the God of love celebrated that day at St. Paul's could provide the renewal needed.

Skipping a Stone across Ages and Cultures-A Time-traveler Visits Christian Communities

The core beliefs that have united Christians for two thousand years certainly built Western civilization, but it is a mistake to think that Christianity belongs to Western culture. Christianity did not originate in the West and has never been confined to it. The core elements of the faith have brought about a tremendous unity in a diversity of cultures, as the renowned writer on Christian missions Andrew Walls demonstrates, imagining what a time-traveler would see if he dropped in on five Christian communities living in different cultures over the centuries.

First, the time-traveler visits the founding church in Jerusalem in AD 37. He notes that these new Christians are hard to distinguish from a branch of Judaism. They simply identify the Jewish teaching about the Messiah, the Son of Man, with Jesus of Nazareth. These Christians are mostly drawn from the ranks of tradesmen and laborers. They have large families, and their faith is marked by celebrations and by helping one another to face life's material challenges.

Next, our time-traveler visits Christians about the time of the Council of Nicea in AD 325. These Christians are no longer Jewish but drawn from all over the Mediterranean world. Many of the leaders now practice celibacy. They are familiar with the ancient Jewish Scriptures but give equal value to writings that have been generated by their own community-the "New Testament." The subject of their discussion centers, as did the first community's, on the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Culturally, these two Christian communities are already worlds apart.

Our time-traveler then visits Irish monks of the seventh century. They practice such spiritual disciplines as fasting and praying for long hours with their arms outstretched in the form of a cross. They are otherworldly in a way the first two communities were not, but they have the same evangelical zeal; they want those near and far to understand Jesus' significance as the Messiah. Some of their members are about to depart for the Scottish coast in tubby leather and wood boats, where they will call the Scottish clans to exchange their nature worship and bloody practices for the joys of heaven.

The time-traveler drops in on one of the great English missionary societies of the 1840s. Unlike the Irish monks, these Christians seek a spirituality marked by social activism instead of severe spiritual disciplines. While the monks lived on virtually nothing, these people are almost too well fed. But they feel exactly the same burden to spread the message. They are funding missions to the Far East, Oceania, and Africa. They are also working to improve conditions within their own society brought on by the Industrial Revolution.

Finally, the time-traveler comes to Lagos, Nigeria, in the 1980s. He sees white-robed Christians dancing and chanting their way through the streets. They call themselves Cherubim and Seraphim, and they invite their neighbors to experience the power of God. They are not social activists like the English. They fast like the Irish monks but more for fixed purposes. They talk more about the Holy Spirit and its power to inspire preaching, bring healing, and provide personal guidance.

The time-traveler notes that, culturally, these five Christian groups could hardly be more different. Yet they think of themselves as connected, and indeed, their thinking is remarkably similar. They believe that in Christ the world has been rescued from the power of evil and death; they believe in God's sovereignty over history; they make the same use of the Scriptures and of bread and wine and water.

Surprising historical connections among these groups come to mind as well-those activist English missionaries first brought the faith to the dancing Nigerians, for example. (Today, in a fitting reversal, these Nigerians and other peoples of the Global South are bringing the faith back to the West.) The Jews evangelized the Mediterranean Gentiles, from whom both Ireland and England received the faith. All five groups, despite cultural appearances, are part of the same legacy: the one Lord, one faith, one baptism they profess holds true for all.

Right Belief and Today's Confusion

We call the core beliefs that have united Christians through the ages orthodoxy, or "right belief." Understanding this faith, once entrusted for all, is critically important today, for we live in a time, as I realized in St. Paul's, when Christians and the civilization they helped to build are under assault.

Surveying the press coverage over the last couple of years makes it clear that Christianity is reeling from a bruising and perhaps unprecedented attack by aggressive atheism-or what one critic ominously calls "anti-theism." In 2006, Richard Dawkins, a clever and articulate Oxford evolutionary biologist, published The God Delusion, which took up near-permanent residence on the New York Times bestseller list. Dawkins considers religious instruction a form of child abuse and suggests that governments should put a stop to it. Tufts professor Daniel Dennett argues that religion is a dangerous toxin that may be poisoning believers. Similar books have appeared from Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) and the brilliant if caustic Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great). The title of Chris Hedges' American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America could hardly be more direct. Regularly, critics liken politically active Christians to the Taliban.

This is not a fringe phenomenon. According to the Wall Street Journal, these authors sold close to a million books in one twelvemonth period alone. Richard Dawkins, responsible for half of those sales, can attest to how lucrative attacking God has become. These critics say we are trying to "impose" our views on American life-that we want to create a "theocracy," or a government run by the Church. But this is absurd; theocracy is contrary to the most basic Christian teaching about free will and human freedom. Christianity gave the very idea of separation of Church and state to the West. And Christianity advances not by power or by conquest, but by love.

Postmodernism and the Death of Truth

What's really at issue here is a dramatic shift in the prevailing belief of Western cultural elites; we have come into a postmodern era that rejects the idea of truth itself. If there is no such thing as truth, then Christianity's claims are inherently offensive and even bigoted against others. Tolerance, falsely defined as putting all propositions on an equal footing-as opposed to giving ideas an equal hearing-has replaced truth.

Millions acquiesce to the all-beliefs-are-equal doctrine for the sake of bettering their social position in our values-free, offend-no-one culture. But to succumb to this indifference is not to accept a tolerant or liberal view of Christianity; it is to embrace another religion, a belief in some supreme value-perhaps tolerance-but not in the God who is and who has spoken.

President Eisenhower, a great father figure of the post - World War II era, perfectly captured this spirit of the postwar age: "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith-and I don't care what it is." In 2007, an Episcopal priest carried this view so far she became a Muslim and remained a priest, while publicly denying there was any inconsistency.

All the while, those making their truth claims are publicly demeaned with impunity. Christians are called "wing nuts" and "flatearthers," or as one major national paper famously put it: "Poor, uneducated, and easily led."

Clash of Civilizations

Even as we provide a reasoned defense against postmodernist disbelief, we must renew our culture-the only true remedy to radical Islam's aggression.

The West has been slowly, almost reluctantly, becoming aware of its clash with radical Islamists. Millions of fascist-influenced jihadists, feeding on revivalist teachings as a counter to Western decadence, seek death for infidels and global rule for Islam. Many Westerners would like all of this simply to disappear somehow. As the polls show, secular Europeans, for whom religion has become inconsequential, cannot fathom a religiously motivated challenge to their way of life. They and others like them throughout Europe and America are eager to deputize competent authorities to handle the problem, so they can get back to their pleasurable lives.

Others ask, "What can be done? Can anyone come up with a new plan or vision of things?" But neither complacency nor fear serves us well. We don't need a new vision of things; rather, we need an eternal vision-to raise our eyes once again to the light that has always guided Christians during times of great distress. One of the greatest virtues of the Christian faith is that it is life affirming and culture building. No other worldview or religion protects the sanctity of life and human dignity as Christianity does; no other worldview has ever created as humane and progressive a culture as Christianity has. Our faith and our experience teach us that the power that created the universe can provide answers to today's dilemmas.

Challenge for the Church

The challenges of anti-theism and radical Islam could not come at a worse time for the Church, because most Christians do not understand what they believe, why they believe it, and why it matters. How can a Christianity that is not understood be practiced? And how can it be presented in its true character as peace, freedom, and joy? How are skeptics to understand Christianity's positive aspects?

Tragically, postmodern culture has infected and weakened the Church, particularly in the West. Spain, once the most Catholic country in Europe, has become, within a generation, among the most secularized. A recent report among Spain's bishops lays the blame squarely on heretical teaching as to the nature of Christ and His atoning work. Likewise, when I asked a priest friend why church membership was declining so rapidly in once rigidly Catholic Ireland, he answered, "Because the priests don't preach the Gospel."

Even evangelicals, known for their fidelity to Scripture, have not been exempt from postmodernist influence. Both George Gallup and George Barna, eminent pollsters and close Church observers, have in recent years decried the declining biblical literacy in the Church. The majority of evangelicals-whom Barna calls "born-again Christians" -do not believe in absolute truth. Sixty percent of Americans can't name five of the Ten Commandments; 50 percent of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.

I viewed these findings with some suspicion until I did my own survey in preparing for this book. Over the past two years, whenever I had occasion, I asked mature believers to name the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Many of them looked surprised, even perplexed. Of the twelve critical doctrines that I have identified in this book, most of my friends, admittedly unprepared, could name only four, at best five. One or two actually told me they thought that doctrine only confused, that we should simply focus on Jesus. Pastors were not much better informed than the laity; Barna found that 49 percent of Protestant pastors reject core biblical beliefs.

On a number of occasions I have stopped in the middle of giving talks and asked, "What is Christianity anyway?" At one dinner in the Bible Belt, the group of mature believers hesitated for what seemed like a full minute of painful silence. No one volunteered.

Finally one man said, "To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul." I replied that was good, but only part of the whole. There followed three or four other answers, all based on what could be called broad scriptural truths, like the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.

These, I explained, are true but only parts of the whole. Christians must see that the faith is more than a religion or even a relationship with Jesus; the faith is a complete view of the world and humankind's place in it. Christianity is a worldview that speaks to every area of life, and its foundational doctrines define its content. If we don't know what we believe-even what Christianity is-how can we live it and defend it? Our ignorance is crippling us.

(Continues...)



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