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The Bias of the Gospel

Journalists are under obligation to ensure that what they publish is verifiable. If what they put into print is incorrect, they and the media outlet they work for could be sued. Thus, a journalist might say, “The chief economist says that interest rates are going to rise.” That is a verifiable fact, and the journalist might actually have a recording of the chief economist saying those very words. The same journalist could write, “Interest rates are going to rise,” and if they did write that, they would have verified that fact. How do they know that interest rates are going to rise? A credible journalist will not make a statement without being able to support that statement with credible sources.

That being said, journalists can still shape the story by deciding what to report and what to leave out. Thus, CNN and Fox News can report on the same story, but their takes on the story are so different we wonder if they are living on the same planet. Yet, both Fox and CNN journalists will be able to give a list of credible sources. The reasons that the stories are radically different is not because they are reporting false facts but that they are reporting only part of the facts. They do this because they want to spin the story so that it matches the political leanings of the media outlet that is paying their salary. The journalist has something to gain by presenting a particular perspective. The media outlet, when presenting a story about the presidential campaign, for example, spins the story so that the political party they are backing will gain power and return favours to them. It is not very difficult to identify some sort of benefit the journalist receives by presenting a biased story. As consumers of media, we always need to ask, “What does this person/outlet gain by presenting the facts in the way they do?” Or, if the journalist or the media outlet spreads false information, they may be sued, thus incurring loss.

Some have accused the Bible of having a bias as well, and it would be difficult to deny it. John, in his gospel, actually states his bias: These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). At the end of the next chapter, John openly admits that he could have recorded much more of Jesus’ life and ministry, but that if he recorded everything, the number of volumes would have become overwhelming (John 21:25). John had a purpose for his gospel, and he picked things from Jesus’ life that supported that purpose. He also left a lot out, leaving us to wonder if perhaps we are left with an incomplete picture and therefore a biased picture of Jesus.

John put a certain spin on the life story of Jesus, and his spin is a little different from that of the other three gospels. In fact, all four gospel writers seem to have a purpose in mind that results in their telling the story in a particular way. This can lead us to ask the question: do the gospels give a fair presentation of who Jesus is? Or are they so biased that we can’t trust them fully?

Some will never be convinced that the biblical accounts of Jesus life and ministry are untrustworthy because of the biases of the authors. We can challenge that accusation with this one question: what do the gospel writers have to gain by presenting Jesus in the way that the do? Let’s consider John for example. What did John gain from presenting Jesus as he did?

John did not gain a position of power. When the mother of John and his brother James suggested to Jesus that they become the vice presidents in his kingdom, Jesus taught that those who wanted to be first in his kingdom had to become servants. Or, as Jesus said several times over, those who are first will be last and the last will be first. John did not follow Jesus for his own personal advantage. In fact, the opposite is true. Instead of gaining a position of power and influence, John was eventually arrested and exiled, being humiliated by the political powers of that time. None of the followers of Jesus Christ became rich from following Jesus. Peter and John, when asked for money by a beggar by the gates of the temple, told him, “We don’t have any money,” although, as we know, through the power of Jesus, they were able to give the man the ability to walk. That too led to a loss on their parts, for the healing led to a challenge by the religious authorities with the command to be silent about Jesus.

In the first three centuries of the New Testament church there was no distinct advantage to being a Christian, at least not economically, socially, or politically. In fact, the early Christians found themselves at a significant disadvantage as they followed Jesus Christ. We cannot say that either the apostles or those who followed them gained anything by presenting Jesus in the way that they did. Anyone who says that the early Christians presented a biased view of Jesus for their own gain would have a hard time proving it. (This changed quite significantly when Christianity became the preferred religion of the west and the church gained tremendous political, economic and social power. Leaders presented very biased views of Jesus and the teachings of Scripture often for great personal gain. The world still suffers from some of those abuses.)

If we cannot say that John and the other gospel writers wrote what they did for personal gain and in fact suffered great disadvantage by believing what they did, we would have to say that the reason for their presentations of Jesus was for some other purpose. In fact, John’s statement that he chose to present certain parts of Jesus’ ministry and not others so that people would believe in Jesus and gain eternal life becomes very credible. John became a servant of the gospel not for his own benefit but for the benefit of others.

As a church we must be careful that we do not present the gospel for personal gain. The church growth movement in which churches seek to gain members by whatever means possible often results in a biased view of Jesus. The problem with the church growth movement is that the church presents the gospel to unbelievers so that it can fill the seats in the sanctuary and boast of the largest youth program in the community. We can sense that the efforts of such a church are not entirely altruistic (showing unselfish concern for the welfare of others). In the same way, our efforts as a church to bring the gospel to the world (VBS, Burger Bash, for example), should be entirely for the benefit of others without the thought that they come to our church. Rather, we do expend energy and time on the lives of others so that they also can believe in Jesus and by believing have eternal life. Our efforts should never be for our own gain.

If we do things as a church for our own gain, we will be presenting Jesus in a biased way that is unhealthy and maybe even incorrect. If, however, we go about the work of the church in making Jesus known to the world and we do so entirely as servants seeking the blessing of others sometimes at great cost to our ourselves, we will never be accused of presenting Jesus in a biased way.

Journalists work for media outlets which have a bias, and that bias results from the desire for personal gain or the avoidance of personal loss. As Christians we want those who benefit to be others, and we tell them about Jesus so that they too can have life in his name. And, for our efforts, we gain nothing and even if we are put at a disadvantage as were the apostles, we continue our work. If we gain nothing, it would be hard for others to accuse us of having a bias. Let it never be said that our church is doing something because we sense it will gain us something, but, rather, may it always be clear that what we are doing gains us nothing but gains others eternal life.

~ Pastor Gary ~


The Kingdom of God and Children

Some years ago, a friend took her daughter, Lucy, to a restaurant in a Jewish neighbourhood. Because of the neighbourhood, most of the people in that restaurant at lunch hour were Jewish, and the place was quite busy. When she was finished eating, this little girl, a very precocious sort, stood up on her seat, turned around and said in a loud voice, “I have something to say to everyone.” She attracted the attention of nearly everyone in the restaurant who then heard her proclaim loudly, “Jesus Christ was born King of the Jews.” With that she sat down. Her mother didn’t know how to respond, for while her daughter had told the truth, it created a very awkward moment. Most of the Jewish people in that restaurant did not believe that Jesus was their King, nor did they recognize them as their Saviour.

We often hear the phrase, “have the faith of a child” or “a childlike faith.” What people are often advocating for is a simple faith that is not “clouded” by deep theological teaching. Simply believe and that is enough, they tell us. They want to keep it simple, making straightforward statements like Lucy did. Those who use these phrases point us to Jesus’ teaching about children as is recorded for us in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 18:1-3, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17). “The Bible teaches us that we have to have a childlike (simple) faith,” they say. A careful reading of these passages, however, reveals to us that Jesus is not speaking about having faith like that of a child but rather that we be like children when it comes to entering and living within God’s Kingdom. For us to fully understand what Jesus means, it is necessary to think about the context given to these discourses.

In Matthew and Mark Jesus’ teaching about children and the Kingdom of God takes place in the context of the disciples trying to determine who would be greatest in Jesus’ kingdom. It is at that point that Jesus brings a child forward and advises that whoever wants to enter the Kingdom of God must change and be like little children. What makes someone worthy of a position in God’s Kingdom? Jesus confronts the idea of meriting or earning a place in the kingdom by presenting to his disciples a little child. Children, in those days, had no rights and privileges, and they knew that everything they had was given to them as a gracious gift.

In Mark’s gospel, the context is decidedly different. There Mark gives us a glimpse of ongoing discussions in the Jewish community in which scholars tried to set boundaries for remaining in God’s Kingdom. How far can someone push the boundaries before they are no longer living by God’s principles and rules? In that context, Jesus confronts the idea that one can do things to become acceptable to God and remain so. Again, using a child as an example, Jesus shows that like children we can do nothing to earn a place in God’s Kingdom.

In all three gospels (John does not include this discussion), when Jesus puts a child forward as an example, he is not saying that we should advocate for a simple, straightforward kind of faith that allows for little deeper thought. Rather, he is saying that if we want to be part of God’s Kingdom, we must first realize that there is nothing we can do but merely receive what has been offered to us. Essentially what Jesus is teaching is that, like little children, we accept God’s grace, and his gracious act to include us in his Kingdom is not something we earn for ourselves.

A child can understand this, as Lucy did when she announced that Jesus was born King of the Jews. She knew that most of the people in the restaurant were Jewish, and she knew that Jesus came to save them as well. She was simply offering to those around her the same grace God had given to her. She could not have articulated God’s grace with greater depth because, after all, she was only three years old.

Children have a simple faith, this is true, but they also have no problem believing that they can do nothing to earn a place in God’s Kingdom. They are used to accepting gifts because everything they have has been given to them. What can a three-year old do to earn what they receive? They receive what has been given because they have no other means by which to survive.

As adults, we develop the idea that we have something to offer. In fact, we become less inclined to accept a gift freely given, and we want to find some reason to say that we merited what we received. So, when it comes to entry into God’s Kingdom, we like to believe that we have done something to earn a place there. But, like little children, we have done nothing, and we can do nothing.

This is where a deepening understanding of God’s Word is helpful. Rather than operating on a child’s storybook knowledge of the Bible, as we grow up, we need to read Scripture more and more and understand it more deeply so that we can counteract some of those feelings of self-sufficiency. As we grow in our theological understanding, we should become more and more convinced that we have nothing to offer to God to move him to give us a place in his Kingdom. The complexities of theology support the basic truths and give credence to the fact that we are like little children when it comes to providing for ourselves.

The Bible does not support a childlike faith, if by that we mean a faith that is not examined and deepened. We need more than that as we become adults. Rather, instead of depending on storybook understanding of God’s Word, we can be assured that as we study the Bible, we will become more and more aware of how complex and vast is the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And the more we know, the more we will realize how like little children we need to be, trusting fully on God’s grace and never on our own merit.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Strength and Weakness

I used to work with someone who said almost every day, “Your strength is your weakness.” For example, some people are very stubborn. They refuse to budge on their view of things, and they won’t try something new. Stubbornness is a weakness. But people who are stubborn can also be stalwart. Someone who is stalwart is loyal and reliable. If you ask a stalwart person to help you for a day, they will be there. Unfortunately, if their stubborn side reveals itself, you’ll end up doing it their way.

Of, as another example, we might meet someone who is disorganized, seemingly unable to make a decision and always living in a bit of a mess. That same person is probably also very creative and has the ability to think outside the box. Don’t let that kind of person take minutes at a committee meeting, but listen carefully to them as they come up with new ways of thinking about things. They may not be organized enough to be able to carry through with their ideas, but their ideas usually will be very novel and helpful.

When in a job interview, the potential employer will often ask, “What are your strengths?” Most people who are applying for a job have thought this through carefully enough, and they are able to give a clear summary of what they are good at. This same question is usually followed up by, “And what are your weaknesses?” We are less inclined to want to list those, and the interviewee may struggle. Perhaps the best answer he/she could give is, “I am not only dependable, but I can be a little stubborn.” Or, “I am able to think creatively, but I can’t always implement my ideas.” A good employer will appreciate the candidate’s strengths but will also understand that these same strengths can become a problem if not recognized and used effectively.

When I was in university, I took a course in which we filled out a survey which resulted in a strengths profile. We spent a couple of class periods talking about what we had discovered, and I quickly realized that I was fairly unique among my classmates. As the professor talked to us about our various profiles, he spoke of people of my type of profile in a fairly negative way. I went home rather dispirited because I felt that God had given me strengths that he could not use. I struggled with this for a few hours, and when I returned to class, I challenged the professor who continued to disparage my strength type, for I felt that he was concentrating the weaknesses of who I am rather than on the strengths. I don’t know if he heard my challenge, but I do know that I learned to accept myself for who I am, at least a little more. True, I don’t have the personality or strengths that pastors normally have, but I have something that God can use in his church.

We often talk about how the Holy Spirit has given gifts to all those who believe in Jesus. There is no believer who has nothing to offer. We would say, further, that all the gifts necessary for a local congregation to fulfill its calling are already present. God always equips a congregation to do the work that he calls it to do, and thus we can say with confidence that Nobleford CRC has all the gifts necessary to carry out the ministry that God has called us to. At the same time, we recognize that our strengths, among them the gifts of the Holy Spirit, can become our weaknesses. The very strengths that God has given me can also be used for harm, for the devil likes to take what God has made good and turn it toward evil. Thus, we would have to admit that all the gifts that God has given to us are not always used as they should be. As a result, the church does not always fulfill its calling.

This is precisely why we need each other. Again, because each of us has gifts, we need each other because none of us has all the gifts. But we also need each other to help us grow in the use of the gifts and strengths that we have. A stubborn person needs others around them to encourage them when the are stalwart and challenge them when they are digging in their heels. A creative person can make our church more beautiful but may need to be encouraged to keep working at the task at hand. We all have gifts, but we don’t always use those gifts as best we could, so we need others to help us grow.

It can be our tendency to notice others more when they use their gifts and strengths inappropriately and criticize them for their failings. We would do well if we could see how someone’s weaknesses can also become their greatest strengths and appreciate each other for how God made us. Further, we should always expect that as time passes, if we continue to rely on the Lord, we will grow in our strengths and our weaknesses will become less and less obvious. After all, the Holy Spirit not only gives us gifts that we can use, but he also causes us to grow in faithfulness. So, let’s be thankful for stubborn people, not because they’re stubborn but because we can be sure that as they grow in Christ, they will be the stalwart people our church needs.

~ Pastor Gary ~


Public Profession of Faith

In a few weeks, God willing, we will celebrate public Profession of Faith. A number of people have been taking the Profession of Faith class and most, if not all, will be standing before the congregation and they will be professing their faith. Profession of Faith is celebrated as an important step in the faith journey of baptized members of our congregation.

But what is Profession of Faith, and where does it come from? A formal profession of faith before the congregation is not commanded by Scripture, nor do we see any examples of professions of faith in the Bible itself. The closest biblical references we have to professions of faith are the adult baptisms of those who had not grown up in the church but had come to faith in Jesus Christ when they heard the gospel preached. The Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8 is one such example of someone who came to faith in Jesus Christ and, upon his profession, was baptized by Philip. In churches where infants are not baptized, adult baptism takes the place of profession of faith. In churches which do baptize infants, profession of faith, or something similar, has become standard practice.

As is often the case with the practices of Protestant churches such as the CRC, much of what we do has its roots in the older church which gave rise to ours, the church we now call the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the European church which was centred in Rome had seven sacraments, baptism and confirmation among them. Confirmation arises out of baptism.

Roman Catholics teach that it is nearly impossible for someone to be saved if they are not baptized. Their logic is as follows: to be saved, one must believe the gospel, namely that Jesus died to forgive us our sins. The church has been entrusted with the message of the gospel and calls people to believe. Baptism is the means by which one enters the church and so can hear the gospel. Thus, we have this progression: baptism gives one entry into the church where the gospel is preached and it is through the preaching of the gospel that one comes to faith and so are saved. Thus, Roman Catholics would say that without baptism there cannot be salvation. Baptism is a gracious act God administered by the church by which it is conferred upon the individual the ability to hear the gospel and so believe.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, confirmation, also a sacrament in the RCC, follows naturally upon baptism. As the church, with the help of the parents, teaches baptized children to put their trust in Jesus, it is expected that the children will come to faith. When that child (who must be at least 7 years old) is able to say that he/she is ready to renounce the world and follow Jesus, believing that his death on the cross is God’s gracious act of salvation, that child is confirmed. In the ceremony the bishop (very occasionally the local priest), after hearing a profession of faith, confirms that the one before him has been granted eternal life and then confers upon that person the gifts of the Holy Spirit. According to the liturgy of confirmation, the Holy Spirit is given to the individual to be their Helper and Guide so that they can live with wisdom, courage, and reverence.

To summarize, in the RCC at baptism the church confers upon a child the ability and opportunity to believe and at confirmation, the church confers upon the ones who believe the ability to live their lives as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Both baptism and confirmation, thus, are acts of the church through which God graciously brings his people to faith and faithfulness.

There is much that is right and good in the Roman Catholic teaching, but the Reformers did not agree with these teachings entirely. We who adhere to the teachings of the Reformers (Calvin, in particular) understand things a little differently.

First, baptism is not a means by which God brings us into his church. Rather, to use the language of both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, through baptism we are received into Christ’s church, meaning that the church recognizes and welcomes the person being baptized as being part of God’s church either through faith in Jesus Christ or because they are born into a family of believers for, as Paul says, children of believers are holy. Thus, baptism recognizes what God has already done. It is God who confers upon individuals a place in his church, and the church recognizes what God has done. While the Roman Catholic teaching says that it is the church which has been given the right to confer upon a person the ability and opportunity to be saved, Reformation churches attribute this work to God.

Like the RCC, Reformation churches teach that we all need to believe in Jesus to be saved. When a person comes to faith (be they young or old), they are affirming and accepting that not only has Jesus died for sinners, but he has also died for “me” as a sinner. In other words, as we grow older, we are all required to believe in Jesus in order to be saved. We also believe that at the moment one becomes part of God’s family, the Holy Spirit is already living in them, giving them the ability to live faithfully. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to all God’s covenant children, young and old, and they do not need to be conferred upon an individual by the church. Again, while the RCC sees itself as being called to confer upon the believer God’s gracious gifts, the Reformation churches teach that it is God who acts directly in the lives of people, without the necessity of the medial role of the church. Thus, instead of practicing confirmation which is an act of the church, Reformation churches have adopted the practice of Profession of Faith.

In Profession of Faith an individual is given the opportunity to express publicly that they affirm and accept God’s gracious promises made to them in baptism. Profession of Faith is an opportunity to testify to what has already happened and should not be viewed as a life-changing experience. Profession of Faith is simply a public announcement that “This is what God has done in my life through Jesus Christ.” Further, it is an opportunity for an individual to say, “And I am publicly announcing that with the help of the Holy Spirt, I will live for Jesus.” And, importantly, in Profession of Faith, those professing their faith also make a formal commitment to the church to which they already belong, asking that the church hold them accountable in life and faith.

Reformation churches have abandoned the rite of confirmation and have, instead, adopted the practice of public Profession of Faith. We have also abandoned the idea that something “happens” to the individual at their Profession of Faith. We don’t look for a change in a person’s life, but, rather, we celebrate the change that has already taken place. When we hear the profession of God’s children, we should be filled with a spirit of wonder and awe that God has again been faithful to fulfill his promises. The Faith Formation Committee of the CRC has said that perhaps one public Profession of Faith is not enough. The committee suggests that our professions should happen often and regularly. But perhaps they already do, as we profess our faith using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Should we not be filled with a spirit of wonder and awe when we again testify that our Triune God has saved us into the covenant community.

~ Pastor Gary ~