The Spirit of the Age and the Reality of the Risen Christ
If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.
What Hinders Belief?
I wonder what you would say are the main hindrances today in America to believing - really believing with deep commitment of life - in a good and holy and sovereign God, in the reality of sin as a breaking of God's law, in the death and resurrection of Christ to save sinners from the wrath of God and give them eternal life, and the necessity of firm, life-changing faith. What stands in the way of people being persuaded that these things are true and real and beautiful and necessary?
- Some might say: people don't even know about them. There is just plain ignorance of what the Bible teaches.
- Others might say: lack of proof. There's no way to know if these claims are true.
- Others might say: There can't be a good God, because there is too much evil in the world.
- Others might say: people are just too distracted by the immediate pressures and pleasures of life to ask ultimate questions and spend any time or effort trying to figure them out.
- Others might say: too many people who claim to believe these things are jerks.
The reason I ask is that I want to try to help you this morning see the truth of Christianity and be persuaded that it is real and beautiful and necessary for your everlasting life. That's a huge order in one message. And I know that all I can do is try to overcome maybe one or two obstacles and open the way for you to pursue truth more freely, until by God's grace, you are persuaded that no other claim to reality explains as much of the world and no other claim meets as many deep needs and no other claim reveals a more authentic view of God and his ways as Christianity does.
So my aim this morning is not proof. The way to think about my proclamation this morning is that I am a little part of what a big God is doing in your life. Your being here and hearing this message is one more piece in the Mosaic of Truth that sooner or later you will recognize as the face of Christ.
The Pervasive Relativism of our Culture
The obstacle to embracing Christianity that I want to address this morning is the obstacle of growing, pervasive relativism in our culture - that neutralizes any claim to truth, especially the Christian claim that is so big and all-encompassing.
What do I mean by growing and pervasive relativism? Let me illustrate it in a few ways. It's only half a joke (and I heard recently of an instance where I don't think it was a joke at all) that to get a job in some places the answer you must give to the question: "What is two plus two?" is, "What do you want it to be?" In other words, truth is not an objective standard that we shape our lives around; instead, our personal desires are sovereign and truth is a wax nose that we shape to get what we want. So if "two plus two is four" feels too confining and hinders some desire that I have, I change it. Because what is absolute is my desire, not objective truth outside of me. That's the relativism I mean.
In that atmosphere it becomes almost impossible to make Christianity intelligible, because of its claim to objective, external, historical truth. So I want to help you be aware of how pervasive this relativism is, and how it affects us all, and then put over against it the Biblical witness to ultimate reality.
Another example of this pervasive relativism would be from several years ago when the DeMoss foundation was playing the pro-life ads on TV that said, "Life. A Beautiful Choice." In other words, life was presented as intrinsically valuable and choosing it was right and good and beautiful. In response, one chapter of the abortion advocacy group NARAL produced counter-ads that used the slogan reversed: "Choice: a beautiful life." Now, what you need to see here is that beneath this change is not just a different view on abortion but a radically different view of truth and reality.
One report of NARAL's TV spot said that it "centers on personal preferences in areas like food, religion, and hairstyles, then segues into the issue of '. . . whether you have a baby - or an abortion.'" So Roger Lundin, a teacher at Wheaton College, comments: "Chinese food or French cuisine, Jesus or Nostradamus, permed or straight, life or death: they are all the same. Whatever tool you choose to use to enhance your own wellbeing does not matter; only your freedom in choosing does" ("The Ultimately Liberal Condition," First Things, No. 52, April, 1995, p. 25). This is what I mean by pervasive relativism. The value of life is not the standard that our choices are shaped by. Instead, our choices are the standard that life is shaped by. Which means that there is no standard; and we are seeing the effects of that in the collapse of our culture on many sides.
Effects of Relativism in Many Spheres
What is so stunning about this pervasive relativism is that it has sophisticated advocates in virtually every sphere of learning and life. Nowadays it is usually called postmodernism. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Emeritus Professor of History at the City University of New York) describes the effect of postmodernism on four areas ("Tradition and Creativity in the Writing of History," First Things, No. 27, November, 1992, p.28):
- In literature, there is no objective meaning that gives what the author intended any priority over what the reader claims to see; and no standard that makes the great books preferable to comic books.
- In law, the meaning of the constitution is not controlled by what the founders intended it to mean, but by what contemporary Judges say it means, or what society needs for it to mean.
- In philosophy, language itself has no sure reference to reality. Language doesn't faithfully describe what is there. It doesn't submit to reality; it creates reality. And therefore it is an instrument of power, not a servant of truth.
- In history the past has no fixed reality. It is only what creative historians choose to make of it.
- And, of course in political scandals, we see this pervasive relativism played out not only in the sense that objective right and wrong seem to be lost categories, but also in the very existence of so-called "spin-doctors": What is a sexual relationship? Well what do we need it to be - or not to be? We will make it be what we want it to be.
And so on.
Now how serious is this pervasive relativism? Well, let me read what Michael Novak said in 1994 when he received the Templeton prize for Progress in Religion:
Vulgar relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The perilous threat to the free society today is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous corrupting culture of relativism. ("Awakening from Nihilism," First Things, No. 45, August/September, 1994, pp. 20-21)
My purpose this morning isn't political or philosophical or even cultural. My aim is to help overcome obstacles to believing in Jesus Christ as the Son of God who died for sinners and rose from the dead, and who will raise his people up to eternal life just as he said: "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:40).
So my concern with this pervasive relativism, this postmodernism, of our culture is this: it hinders people's ability to grasp the Biblical reality of God and sin and Christ and faith, because it undermines our ability to believe in any objective reality. People begin to absorb the notion that there is no reality besides ourselves and our own desires and whatever we can manipulate the world to give us.
"Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?" - A Relativist Answer
The connection between all this and the resurrection of Jesus came home to me on Thursday as Noel and I drove to lunch together and were listening to the midday public radio program. John Dominic Crossan was being interviewed by Lynn Neary. Now, Crossan is a radical critic of the gospels and rejects much of what the church has always believed about Jesus. Lynn Neary began by asking him, "Did Jesus rise from the dead?" His answer was an immediate, "Yes, yes, yes - for Christians." And he didn't mean "on behalf of Christians." He meant, "In the view of Christians."
In other words, the resurrection of Jesus is not an objective, physical, historical fact, but is whatever Christians make of it. Jesus is risen because his memory and influence go on in the hope of the church and in its passion for justice. Lynn Neary didn't press him while we were listening. But if she had, I think he would have said, "It doesn't really matter whether the body of Jesus was still in the tomb, or if he rose bodily from the dead, and is alive today in heaven ready to judge the living and the dead. What matters is not reality out there, but reality in here - in our hearts and our minds and our choices."
That is what is so deadly about pervasive relativism. Because this is exactly the opposite of what the Bible actually teaches.
What the Bible Teaches About Jesus
First, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is eternal and is himself God.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Therefore he cannot be just what we want him to be. His reality is massively independent of us. He is before us and over us. We have to deal with him as a given. Christ is there as the Way, the Truth and the Life absolutely, no matter how we feel about it or what we make of it.
Second, the Bible teaches that this divine, eternal Christ, who was God, became a man.
"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Or, as Paul says it: "In Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9). Christ is a historical person and his historical reality is unchangeable. We may try to persuade ourselves that we can make history mean what we like. But every boy and girl in this room knows that yesterday is as unchangeable as 2+2=4. You can't go back and redo yesterday. And no amount of sophistication will make the facts of yesterday anything other than what they always have been. If Christ became a man once, that fact never changes.
Third, the Bible teaches that this divine, incarnate, God-man, Jesus Christ died willingly for our sins.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3, "I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures." This death was as real and objective and necessary as Patty Larson's death on Tuesday. And the meaning of the death of Jesus is not a subjective guess by his followers. God designed it and Jesus taught it and the apostles received it.
He was the sin-bearing fulfillment of all God's promises in the Old Testament: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:56). God, the Lord, did something objectively outside of us to give this death its meaning. He laid our sins on Jesus. That is the meaning of it. He is a sin-bearing Savior. We don't make him that. That is what he is.
Fourth, the Bible teaches that he rose bodily from the grave.
And this was not a ghost or a vision, like people have today of their departed loved ones. The grave was empty. It was a great embarrassment to his enemies. But even more important were his physical appearances to his disciples. "To [the apostles] He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God" (Acts 1:3). He proved to these witnesses that he was really, objectively, physically alive (Luke 24:38-43):
And He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave Him a piece of a broiled fish; and He took it and ate it before them.
In other words, I am not an idea. I am not a cause of justice spreading in the world. I am not a feeling of hope in the breast of my followers. I am not a collective illusion in the minds of gullible people. I am rock-solid reality. I was dead, and I am alive, and you can touch me and watch me eat fish. That's how real I am, Jesus says.
Fifth, the Bible teaches that this risen Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth and will never die again.
Romans 6:9 says, "We know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him." Which is why, Jesus said in Matthew 28:18, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go make disciples from all nations." And it's why Paul said, "God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Philippians 2:9-11). This is reality outside ourselves. This is not what you can make out of history. This is why history can make something out of you.
Which leads us to the final word.
Sixthly, the Bible teaches, in Romans 8:11, that "if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies."
There is coming a real, objective, historical day when God's people will be raised as Jesus was.
Please Consider the Biblical Claims
So I close by asking: Are you free enough from the relativistic spirit of our age to deal with objective reality outside yourselves? I plead with you to consider these six Biblical claims:
1) Christ has always existed as God. 2) Christ became a man full of grace and truth. 3) Christ died for sins. 4) Christ rose bodily from the dead. 5) Christ will never die again and has all authority in heaven and earth. 6) He will raise you from the dead if the Spirit of his Father dwells in you.
How do you receive the Spirit of God so that he dwells in you? Here is the answer the Bible gives in Galatians 3:5. Paul says, "Does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?" There's the answer: you receive the Spirit of God by hearing the gospel, the word of God, with faith. That is, you come to a point, when you have heard the word of God and, by his grace, you see that this is the truth, and you take it and believe it and live it.