It is one of the most moving moments in the Star Trek adventures. At the end of the Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise is crippled and incapable of warp drive. A cosmic explosion is imminentadjacentto the ship but without full power they cannot escape and so their fate is sealed. In an act of incredible heroism the Vulcan First Officer Spock exposes himself to deadly radiation, in the sure knowledge that he will die, in order to repair the fault and restore power. The ship and its crew are saved in the nick of time but Captain Kirk is devastated as he sees his friend die before his eyes. Spock explains to his captain and friend,
“It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or of the one.”
Stirring stuff and quite inspiring.
You will understand my smiling, though, when I read one of the innumerable letters and emails that have emerged over the issue of a parcel of land in Salt Lake City. The Mormon Church has purchased a part of Main Street and, inevitably, a major battle has ensued over who has what rights to do what on the land. Basically, there are those who feel they should retain the right of access with no restrictions typical of any main street in America, including the right to “protest” and otherwise disseminate Christian literature. And then there are those who feel that, since the Mormon Church now owns the land, it has a right to restrict such access according to the dictates of sometimes peculiarly Mormon interests. The issue is complicated by the clear fact that the city retains an easement, i.e. a right of way over the land in behalf of its citizens.
One correspondent, writing to Mormonism Researched Ministry seemed to feel that, since the church owned the land and the members far outweighed in number any other interest group, ipso facto their side wins. He protested that “Last time I checked, our land was based on ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one'”. Now whether he is right is not the issue here, but whether he is quoting the constitution, Joseph Smith, or Mr Spock. Given that the American ethos is built on the cult of the rugged individual, somehow I feel that Spock’s hive mentality would not go down well with the average American who might see himself more like Captain Kirk than Mr Spock.
On a more serious note, Charles Colson wrote recently about Christopher Reeve’s attempt to influence the American government to support embryonic stem-cell research. Reeve, famous for his role as Superman, was the victim of a tragic riding accident in which he was paralysed from the shoulders down. Embryonic stem-cell research seems to offer a real opportunity for him, as well as others like him, to regain movement where all other therapies seem hopeless. Colson’s fascinating article can be read on the Christianity Today web site. The point, again, is not the stem-cell research but one of the arguments brought by Reeve. The question is raised: Is it ethical to take a life to save a life? Embryonic stem-cell research does, after all, destroy human embryos. I would emphasise that they are not fertilised embryos, perhaps one reason why such research is carried out in other countries, including the UK. However, for many this is a difficult and uncomfortable question.
Reeve replies, “I thought it was the job of the government to do the greatest good for the greatest number.” Many at the hearing were seen to be nodding in agreement. In a disturbing article Colson draws out the Spock-like logic of this “greatest good” philosophy to its inevitable conclusion, i.e. euthanasia for those considered to be a burden to society – including people like Christopher Reeve. I urge people to read it.
But where does this “greatest good” philosophy come from? Is Spock quoting the constitution of the USA, or the Bible? Or are these people watching too much television and therefore influenced subliminally by a fictional character with green blood and pointy ears? While it is true that this moral utilitarianism is prevalent in some very real and very earth-bound people’s thinking, it is not Christian, nor is it Mormon, and nor does it form the basis of the American constitution. This got me thinking about the wider question – where do we get our theology and our philosophy?
The Value of One
This “greatest good” philosophy does, on first glance, appear very practical, and even Christian. After all, didn’t the One, Jesus Christ, sacrifice Himself for the many? However, it does not reflect the true value God places on the individual. The intrinsic value of each human life is first realised in the teaching that God made men and women in His own image. This is no more clearly taught than in the pronouncement of God to Noah,
“And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.” -(Genesis 9:5-6)
The value of the individual sinner is taught by Jesus in the New Testament, in the parable of the lost sheep. Having been criticised by the Pharisees for eating with sinners,
“Jesus told them this parable: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he find it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” – (Luke 15:1-9)
The greatest good for the greatest number is not, then, a true reflection of God’s love for each one. A love that is so great that, “even the very hairs of your head are numbered.” (Matthew 10:30)
Mormonism? We brought some with us
For some time after leaving the Mormon Church my wife and I found ourselves asking the question, was that orthodox Christianity, or is that a bit of Mormonism we brought along with us? It was never a major problem but an interesting one nevertheless. One example was the seemingly orthodox saying, “this life is the time to prepare to meet God”. Of course, any Christian will tell you that this is true enough, for doesn’t the writer to the Hebrews warn, “… man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement…” The same thought in different words, you might say. However, the wording in the first statement is taken from the Book of Mormon (Alma 34:32) and is part of a doctrine that sees this life as a period of probation from which we must emerge having enough good works to our credit in order to enjoy God’s favour. The Book of Mormon clearly states that “by grace we are saved after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23); and “whosoever doeth this [repents], and keeps the commandments of God…he shall have eternal life” (Alma 7:15-16).
The wording of the second statement is taken from the Bible (Hebrews 9:27), and is part of a doctrine that sees this life as a fallen state in which men and women are lost unless they repent “while it is still called today”. The Bible declares that nothing we do by way of works can contribute in any way to our salvation, “…for all have sinned and fall short (completely miss the mark) of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace…” (Romans 3:23-24). And “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” (Hebrews 9:28). This doesn’t mean that Christians are lazy and deny good works, but in the first scheme people work in order to be saved, while in the second people work because they are saved. The difference is essential and we have learned to be very careful who we quote and how we understand these things.
After we had been Christians for a couple of years we suffered a loss in the family. I spoke about it to a Christian I knew and he asked if the person was saved? I had to say that she wasn’t and, looking for something to say by way of comfort, he offered, “Never mind, you will get her under family salvation.” I had never heard of such a thing (apart from Mormon baptism for the dead) and so I made it my business to find out. It is, I discovered, an idea based on texts like Acts 16:31, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household”. Now some argue from this that households are saved because the head of the house is saved. Others argue that the offer, “believe and be saved”, is simply offered to each individual member of the household, i.e. this offer is open to all your household as each believes. But whichever way you view it, for me the most troubling aspect of this story is that, when I asked my friend where he got this idea, he couldn’t tell me. His reply was literally, “I don’t know. I just heard it somewhere”. I wonder how much of what “goes around” in the church amounts to nothing more than something that was heard somewhere?
Another popular idea among many Christians is the one that says, “God will not give you a burden greater than you can bear”. Now, if you ask someone offering this comfort where exactly in the Bible it says that they will probably insist its there, although I defy anyone to find it. At least to find it expressed in those familiar terms. It is based on 1 Corinthians 10:13 and is the very first scripture text I ever memorised as a young believer. A text about temptation did seem very important to a teenager struggling with the natural processes of growing up. I also struggled with the Authorised language in which it was couched:
“There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”
The NIV makes it plain:
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”
The first thing to say is that this is about temptations and not burdens. The second is that God does not lay either on us, for James tells us,
“When tempted, no-one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.” (James 1:13-14)
As for burdens it is clear that our burdens are our sins and lawlessness, and Jesus invites all who are burdened by sin to enjoy the rest that only he can give:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
There is, therefore, no difficult and heavy burden that can be said to come from God. Therefore, it is wrong to say that he will not give you a burden greater than you can bear. Thinking this way, we blame God for something he never does, and make those who do feel “burdened” feel guilty for not dealing with their current problems very well. The last thing you need when life is getting you down is some well-meaning friend reminding you that you should be coping better than you are because “it says somewhere that God will not give you a burden greater than you can bear”. That is one burden too far.
Christians do believe in good works, surely?
I have sometimes sat with Mormon missionaries who have been puzzled by some of the things Christians have apparently told them about “salvation by grace”. I say apparently because it is sometimes difficult for a Mormon to distinguish between what they heard from a Christian and what they have been told by the Mormon Church that Christians are supposed to believe. When we think of faith groups, cultural groups, or nationality groups, we have a tendency to think in stereotypes and Mormons are no different in this respect. Like many people, they can fall into the trap of building their own case by caricaturing the traditional Christian faith and rejecting the caricature.
The Mormon caricature of what Christians believe is summed up in something a Mormon missionary recently asked me. “I was told by a Christian that as long as you believe then it doesn’t matter what you do,” he said. “You can go out and murder, rape and do all sorts of things and still go to heaven. Isn’t that right?” I don’t know whether he was actually told these things by a Christian, whether he was told something that he interpreted in this way, or whether he simply attributed to “a Christian I met” the stereotype fed him by his church. I do know that this extreme example of easy-believism is exactly how most Mormons see us. I also know that the way some Christians go about witnessing to the glorious truth of God’s grace does nothing to disabuse them of this grotesque misrepresentation.
Saved by Grace
Of course, it is right that we should point out that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus… that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (Romans 3:23-28)
Later in the same letter Paul explains,
“Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5)
Through these texts, and others we might legitimately use in witnessing, the truth simply cries out to us. The difference Christ makes is the difference between a gift and a wage. God’s gift is life and, as though to underline the danger of trying to earn anything, Paul reminds us that it is sin that pays wages, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) The problem comes when we fail to anticipate how this incredible message of grace might be misconstrued by those who interpret it as a “ticket-to-heaven” message that takes no account of how we conduct ourselves in this life. Paul does not make this mistake but addresses the question full on.
Marked by Changed Lives
“Is this a charter for sinning?” is the Mormon’s question, or as Paul wrote, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (Romans 6:15, cf. v.1). “By no means!” is Paul’s reply. It is important that Christians explain, as Paul does here, that something more miraculous than a simple determination to live better for God has happened to a Christian. That, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (v.2) That, “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” (vv 6-7). That, since “We…are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18), the life of the Christian is not one of sinless perfection. But it is characterised by repentance, righteousness and a following after God, as well as an assurance of eternal life with God (1 John 5:13).
The grace, or undeserved favour, of God is clearly the motivating, life-giving force, and eventual guarantee of the Christian’s life and eternal inheritance for, “God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:4-9) Note that it is God who made us alive; God who raised us up and seated us with Christ; God who saved us, not because we have proved worthy, but as a gift.
Made for Works
In verse 10 we see that, as a result of God’s grace, now “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”. This is where works fits in, i.e. the Bible teaches the essential place of works in God’s plan of salvation (James 2:16-17), but it teaches the obedience of the saved and not the salvation of the obedient. Part of that work of obedience is a lifestyle of repentance and a lifetime of submitting to God as he completes his work in us who are his workmanship. The Greek for workmanship here has the connotation of “a work of art”, i.e. we are God’s masterpiece. Mormons teach that “We need to begin in earnest the process of making ourselves more like Jesus Christ”, but the Bible declares that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit”, 2 Corinthians 3:18. It is not, then, what we do but what God does in us with the result that works are what characterise the daily walk of the redeemed. It is essential that we get this message across, that works are not essential to salvation but are essential in salvation.
I sometimes point out that our prisons are not, as one might expect, bursting at the seams with Christians who adopt this peculiar laissez faire philosophy. On the contrary, most Christians strive to be model citizens. I also ask why, if it doesn’t matter what you do, so many millions of Christians make enormous sacrifices, in service of others, and in missionary work across the world. Once faced with these realities, the Mormon usually realises that he or she might have misunderstood something.
In a church that has, in recent years, laid such great store by experiences and emotional conviction we may have lost sight of the value of clear thinking. If we are to get our message across it is important to realise that when we were blind to the truth it was because the god if this age had blinded our minds (2 Corinthians 4:4). As we turn to Christ we are told to be made new in the attitude of our minds (Ephesians 4:23). This does not make Christianity a mere academic exercise, but it does show that our thoughts and perceptions are essential in God’s plan for us. In light of this I want to draw out some lessons from the examples above.
1. It has been said that the good is often the greatest enemy of the best. We can convince ourselves sometimes that we are “thinking God’s thoughts after him” when all the while we are ascribing to God what we, and the world, thinks is a good idea. We are inevitably affected by the world that we live in, and the world, lets face it, does come up with some good ideas. But like the “greatest good” philosophy, some of the philosophies we take on are simply the world’s good ideas, and sometimes the world’s not-so-good ideas. It is tempting to say that if it isn’t in the Bible then it should be. It is wiser to say that if it isn’t in the Bible we must judge it by the Bible.
2. Similarly, we must ask how much of our old lifestyle we have brought with us into our new Christian life. We are to be made new in our attitudes and thinking but it is sometimes a challenge to distinguish between the way I used to think and the way I should think now. No one is unaffected by the prejudices, attitudes and habits we picked up in our developing years. Some of these will serve us well in our new Christian walk if we have been raised with a sense of justice and fair play, a respect for others, and a reverence for life, etc. Some will need reviewing, and we need to examine our own lives in light of God’s Word to see which areas need attention. “This life is the time to prepare to meet God”, may be a good idea and should give us pause for thought, but it is a Mormon idea that comes laden with all sorts of wrong thinking about salvation. As a Mormon I learned to value my family, exercise faith, and communicate my convictions, all of which have served me well as a Christian. However, I also learned a distorted view of traditional Christianity, a low view of the Bible compared with the Book of Mormon, and a mistaken understanding of God’s grace. I have had to deal with these issues.
3. It is so much easier sometimes to allow others to do our thinking for us in this life. When it comes to issues of faith this is very dangerous indeed because it is essential that we know the truth for ourselves. It is natural to be influenced by others, especially others with wiser heads and more experience, and there is nothing wrong with that. But we must take care that our thinking is not so vague and lazy that it is coloured by no more than “something I heard somewhere”. Like my Christian friend and his undeveloped ideas about family salvation, we can live our lives guided more by myth, hearsay and downright superstition than by the word of God in scripture. A good reading programme will go a long way to helping us avoid these kinds of errors. It is also true that some Christians simply need to get out more.
4. Are we letting the Bible influence our lives and thinking, or are we allowing sloppy thinking to influence what the Bible says to us? The Bible does not say that God will not give us a burden greater than we can bear. But so many people are convinced it does that this saying is common currency in Christian circles. It is a nice sentiment and does reflect our faith that God cares for us more than we could know. But it is an example of what happens when we take our truths to the Bible instead of getting our truths from the Bible. It is no bad thing to ask where does it say that? How should I understand this? What is God saying here? The first step to finding out is admitting you don’t know, that your not sure, or you want to know more.
5. Are we so eager to share the good news that we fail to give the complete picture? The danger is that, in our eagerness to make it simple, we make it simplistic. In our enthusiasm for telling of God’s love we can forget to mention that the slave to sin becomes the slave to righteousness. If you can’t face people with the demands of the Christian life along with the joy of the Christian message then do them a favour and leave them alone. You will end up with either someone who rejects the gospel immediately, like the Mormon, because it seems too easy to be real, or someone who rejects the gospel eventually when they find out what God demands of them but no one told them. A good question to ask a prospective convert is “are you prepared for the changes this will mean in your life?” Well, are you?