Every so often, you run into something that makes you scratch your head. So it was with a survey I read about last week. Though the full results of the survey won’t be released until the day after tomorrow, the survey conductors released a few advanced snippets. Among these, they found that a majority of Americans no longer believe that Jesus was God, which is sad but not surprising.
However, the one that blew my mind was that 30 percent of self-identified evangelicals also agreed that Jesus was a good teacher but not God. Even the supposed Christian conservatives in our country are beginning to question the deity of Christ! That shocks me, and when I see such a surprising result, normally I start questioning the integrity of the survey conductors. However, the outfit in question is Ligonier Ministries, a respectable group that has been doing surveys like this for years.
I decided, then, that we need to talk about this. Lots of people apparently think it’s reasonable to believe that Jesus was merely a human being who said lots of good things. Is it? This evening, let’s ask if indeed Jesus was just a good teacher.
In order to answer this question, I think there are three main pieces of evidence we need to consider, evidence from the mouth of Jesus Himself. The first of these is that HE CLAIMED TO BE THE SOLE SOURCE OF TRUTH. Look at His exchange with Thomas in John 14:5-6. We are very used to this idea. We sing hymns that praise Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. Many of us can quote John 14:6 from memory.
However, I think that because we are so used to it, we no longer are able to see how shocking the words of Jesus are here. To illustrate how shocking they are, let’s take them out of the mouth of Jesus and put them in somebody else’s mouth—mine.
Imagine, brethren, that I’m preaching along one Sunday morning, and in the middle of the sermon I say, “I, Matthew W. Bassford, am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” What would you think of that? I strongly suspect that if I were to say such a thing in deadly earnest, by next Sunday, I no longer would be employed by the Jackson Heights church!
Why? Because for a mere human being to make that claim would be extraordinarily arrogant. Even Moses, the great giver of the Law, never claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life. In making that claim, Jesus put Himself over every other teacher of the Law. He condemned every other religion in existence as false.
What’s more, He even put Himself over the Law itself. Think about it. For thousands of years, the Jews had regarded God’s word as truth. It was their way to pleasing Him. If they obeyed, God would give them life. In saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus is telling His hearers, “You need to quit following the Law and start following Me instead.”
Anybody who makes that claim about themselves cannot be merely a good human teacher. Either they are leading people astray, or they are a being of such transcendent wisdom that it is right to reject everything else in favor of them. Jesus did make that claim, so it is impossible for us to believe that He merely is a good teacher.
Second, HE CLAIMED TO BE THE MESSIAH. Look at the exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4:25-26. This, I think, is another shocking claim that has lost its shock value because we are so used to it. In our society, it’s probably true that most people think that “Christ” is Jesus’ last name.
Of course, “Christ” is not a name. It is a title, and it means the same thing that “Messiah” does. It means “Anointed One”. Even this doesn’t mean a whole lot to people in the 21st-century United States, but it would have meant everything in first-century Palestine.
Under the Law of Moses, three classes of people were ceremonially anointed: prophets, priests, and kings. Various prophecies throughout the Old Testament predicted the coming of one who simultaneously would be a prophet like Moses, a priest like Melchizedek, and a king like David. When He came, this Anointed One would deliver God’s people from their enemies once for all.
More than anything else, the people of Jesus’ day wanted to see the Messiah come. Not surprisingly, lots of people tried to take advantage. Both the New Testament and secular historians record false Christs, people who claimed to be the Messiah and weren’t.
It was possible for somebody to be a false Christ. What wasn’t possible was to make that claim and simultaneously be a good human teacher. If you said you were the Christ, either you were, or you were a deceiver on a massive scale. If you were the Christ, then you also were the Redeemer, the Savior, the Holy One of God. The true Christ wasn’t somebody who came to pass along a few wise little parables. He was somebody who came as the greatest fulfillment of divine prophecy ever to be.
Finally, of course, Jesus could not merely be a good human teacher because HE CLAIMED TO BE GOD. Consider what Jesus says to some opponents of His in John 8:56-59. Jesus begins this exchange by asserting something that others in His day would have found ridiculous—that Abraham, 2000 years ago, looked ahead prophetically and rejoiced to see the coming of Jesus.
Naturally, the Jews jump all over this. Who does Jesus think He is, to make such a claim? In response, Jesus tells them, “Before Abraham was, I am.” This is not Jesus mixing up His verb tenses. Instead, He is taking the divine name of God from Exodus 3 and He is appropriating it for Himself. He is claiming to be eternal, pre-existent, and divine.
The Jews understand perfectly well what Jesus is saying here, so well, in fact, that their next action is to pick up stones to stone Him to death. These aren’t Greeks who accept the existence of gods and demigods in human form. For them, for any human being to claim to be God is blasphemy. Such a one deserved to die.
I’m sure that throughout this sermon, some of you have been thinking about C.S. Lewis’s “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” argument, and this is where it comes to a point. Jesus claims to be God. That means that one of three things must be true of Him. Either He was a con artist, He was out of His mind, or He really was the God He claimed to be.
Indeed, this claim completely forecloses the possibility that Jesus merely was a good human teacher. Good human teachers don’t claim to be God. Evil human teachers might make such a claim, or crazy human teachers, but not good human teachers.
In order to believe, then, that Jesus was a good human teacher and nothing more, these 30 percent of evangelicals must reject the words of Jesus Himself. Whatever they say about themselves, they are not Christians in any meaningful sense. For us to be Christians, we must accept not only His goodness and humanity, but also His exclusivity, His Messiahship, and His deity. There is no other way.
As is true for all people, those of us who live in 21st-century America view reality through the lens of our culture. Because of our setting, we have many preconceptions that we don’t examine because our society shares them. We assume that X is how human beings think, and we don’t realize that many human beings in other times and places have not thought that way at all.
This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to our society’s view of sexuality. To tens of millions of Americans, sexual autonomy is the preeminent value. You are defined by your sexual inclinations.
This does not make as much sense as we like to think it does. Generally, we consider it odd when people define themselves by their appetites--what they like to eat, for instance. When we’re at a party, and a new acquaintance announces, “I’m a vegetarian!”, we start edging away. Self-identification by sexual appetite, on the other hand, is serious business!
For humankind, this is not typical. All societies consider sex to be important, but rarely do they regard it as central to existence. Traits that some Americans build their lives around were and are commonly ignored.
For instance, before the advent of Western cultural hegemony, many languages didn’t have a word for “lesbian”. When Paul condemns men having sex with men in 1 Corinthians 6:9, he has to invent one of the two words he uses to do so—again, because koiné Greek didn’t have an existing word for the concept. The emphasis that we place on sexuality is cultural, not innate.
It is hardly surprising, then, when Americans have great difficulty with Biblical passages that limit sexual activity. Recently, numerous writers have tried to narrow the scope of 1 Corinthians 6:9 (arguing that it’s about prostitution, for instance) or simply have rejected it entirely. Likewise, even among brethren, Jesus’ teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage in Matthew 19:1-9 is widely ignored.
The textual justification for these positions is scant. Instead, they are driven by our intuitions about fairness. It strikes us as unjust to ask anyone to be celibate, particularly if (as with those who are attracted only to their own sex or are unscripturally divorced) said celibacy will be lifelong.
This poses a significant interpretive hurdle for us. In Matthew 19:12, Jesus discusses choosing to be a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. For all the sense that makes to modern Americans, it might as well have been left in koiné Greek!
We must recognize, though, that such a view is based on our culture, not on some objective reality. From Vestal Virgins to Buddhist monks, many people in many different societies have chosen to refrain from intimacy, sometimes for a limited time, sometimes forever. Such societies regard celibacy as difficult but doable, particularly in pursuit of a higher goal, and that’s every bit as typical, perhaps more so, as the hypersexualization of our own.
There are many reasons why Christians might choose to be unmarried or be required to be so. Maybe it’s not a path we would choose for ourselves, but neither is it the most awfulest horriblest thing ever to happen to anyone. It is entirely possible for the celibate life to be rich and fulfilling, particularly when eternal life will be the reward. Many throughout time would not have questioned this. In our own time, let those who are able to accept this, accept it!
Lying is a funny thing. At one time or another, every one of us has lied, and yet, despite its universality, we must acknowledge that it is a thing of extraordinary power. Lies have destroyed marriages, churches, nations, and souls. Even if Jesus had not told us so explicitly, it would be easy for us to conclude that something so evil has to be the handiwork of Satan.
However, the most damaging lies of all aren’t the ones that others tell us. They are the ones we tell ourselves. Self-deception may be even more common than other forms of deceit, but it is no less dangerous.
Indeed, it may be even more so. When we are tempted to lie to someone else, at least we know we are being tempted. We have to make a conscious decision to lie. However, when it comes to self-deceit, part of the lie is that we aren’t lying to ourselves. Consequently, even if Christians can reach a point in their spiritual development when they reliably tell the truth to others, none of us ever outgrow the temptation to believe a lie rather than the truth. This evening, then, let’s explore the dangers of self-deception.
In our study tonight, we’re going to be looking at a context in James 1, in which James reveals three unwelcome truths about self-deception. The first of these is that IT DOES NOT ACCOMPLISH RIGHTEOUSNESS. Look at what he tells us in James 1:19-21.
James here is concerned with one particular form of self-deception—self-righteous anger. He warns us to be quick to listen and slow to speak, which generally is good advice, but contextually, he’s warning us to be slow to express our anger and quick to listen to the righteous rebuke of the word of God. It is for God to tell us how to be righteous, not for us to self-righteously tell others how they ought to live.
This is a temptation that every one of us faces when we become angry. When we’re angry at someone, a feeling of self-righteousness is always part of the mix. Here we were, going along, living our blameless little lives, when some despicable person does something that makes us mad. Maybe it was our thoughtless, inconsiderate spouse. Maybe it was that obnoxious co-worker. Maybe it was that jerk who cut us off on the highway. Regardless, they have offended us, and so we are going to tell them just what we think of their inexcusable, awful behavior, even if the only way we can communicate is laying on the car horn!
The problem is, though, that even though we feel so righteous, we truly are not righteous. God has the right to condemn people, but we don’t, because we ourselves are so often thoughtless, inconsiderate, obnoxious jerks. Our angry condemnations of others are sheer hypocrisy, and indeed, even in the moment, our words that feel so righteous are likely unrighteous.
I’ve been saying this since I started preaching, and it’s still true. Never once have I spoken in anger and later been glad that I did. Rather than expressing that deceptive sense of self-righteousness, then, let’s learn to hold our peace, to think things over, to pray, to calm down, so that when we do speak, we humbly repeat the words of God.
Second, self-deception KEEPS US FROM IMPROVEMENT. Let’s read here from James 1:22-25. This passage begins by pointing out something that we may not have considered. Every time someone hears the word and chooses not to obey it, there is self-deception involved.
Maybe the lie is that God isn’t real and so His commandments can be ignored. Maybe it’s that God is a God of love, so we don’t have to worry about all those bothersome legalistic little rules. Maybe it’s that we’re in a hard place right now, and God understands why we’re not obeying. Maybe the lie is that I’m doing a great job on this particular commandment, and I’m so glad that Brother Orville is here for this sermon, because he really needs to hear it! Regardless, when we hear and don’t do, we are lying to ourselves somewhere.
It makes sense that this would be so. There is nothing on earth that the devil fears more than the word of God. If everyone received it honestly, everyone would obey the gospel, and on the judgment day, hell would be empty. Thus, Satan constantly is hard at work defeating the gospel, doing everything he can to put armor plate between it and us so that it can’t pierce our hearts.
If he succeeds in doing this, nothing will happen, but it will be a deadly nothing. Just like when I get up from the dinner table and look at my face in the mirror and see that I’ve got spaghetti sauce smeared all over my mouth like a two-year-old, when we look into the mirror of the word, we must see that there is something we must do. If we don’t, there is no point to looking into the mirror in the first place.
Thus, every time we read the Bible or hear it read, we must ask ourselves, “How does this apply to me?” “Where do I fall short?” Then, we need to go out and make the changes God wants to see. Only in this way can we receive His blessing.
Finally, self-deception MAKES OUR RELIGION USELESS. Let’s conclude our reading with James 1:26-27. Once again, there’s a generic statement in v. 26 that I think gains a specific meaning from context. I think it’s generally true that religious people shouldn’t go around shooting their mouths off, but James seems to have something particular in mind. Notice that in v. 27, he identifies the way that true religion expresses itself—by helping people who are in need and living a godly life. V. 27 is set up as a contrast to that.
What James is really warning us against, then, is a particular kind of uncontrolled speech—uncontrolled speech about religion. He wants us to understand that if we think we are serving God by running our mouths with no filter about some religious topic, we are lying to ourselves.
There are so, so many possible applications here, brethren! This is about the Christians who call the elders up and give them what-for about every decision they make. This is about telling people who are staying home from services because of COVID vulnerability that they’re forsaking the assembly. This is about embarrassing your neighbor with their lack of Biblical knowledge instead of trying to persuade them to follow Jesus. Generally, it’s about any time that we use religion as a way to express our pride and elevate ourselves over others. That’s the kind of thing that gives religion a bad name, and it does not give us a good name in the eyes of God.
Instead, the real path to becoming great in God’s kingdom is to become a servant. Don’t complain about problems in the church. Work to solve problems in the church. Don’t blast the brother who is struggling spiritually. Give them a shoulder to lean on or cry on. Don’t show contempt for outsiders. Show them that you love them and want to help them. Only when our lives first show forth the glory of Christ can our words guide others to Him.
When I was in law school, all my classes were graded on a B curve. 25 percent of the students in the class got an A-range grade, 50 percent got a B-range grade, and 25 percent got a C-range grade. As a result, my grades depended much more on the understanding of my peers than on my own grasp of the material. If I understood next to nothing about the class, but my classmates were completely clueless, I would get a good grade. If, on the other hand, I nearly had mastered the material, but my classmates understood it fully, I. . . wouldn’t. My GPA was about them, not me.
Well, it probably was about my horrible handwriting too, but that’s another story.
Similarly, there are lots of people out there who want to grade their spiritual lives on a curve. On some level, they know they’re not perfect people. They lie, they get angry, they have impure thoughts, and so on.
However, then they start comparing themselves to their neighbors, and they conclude that they’re in pretty good shape after all. Sure, I’ve lied, but at least I didn’t get busted for selling drugs to a cop like them. Yeah, I’ve gotten mad and said ugly things, but I don’t get in fights at the bar Friday night like them. True, I’ve had impure thoughts before, but I didn’t run off with the waitress from Waffle House like they did. Clearly, in God’s eyes, we have earned A-range grades while those wicked worldlings have earned C-range grades, or worse!
There are several problems with this. First, all of us tend to regard our own sins with greater charity than we do the sins of others. There are plenty of people out there who think they are better than their neighbors even though God would not agree.
Second, and even more importantly, our neighbors’ actions reveal who our neighbors are, not who we are. The standard is not their bad behavior. It is the law of God. As Jesus reveals in Luke 17:7-10, God doesn’t consider service from His servants to be a bonus. Instead, His expectation is that we follow the law fully. Even if we manage that, which none of us do, it still wouldn’t be anything praiseworthy.
Once we stop grading ourselves on a spiritual curve, our true condition becomes obvious. I am not justified because (according to my own reckoning) I am better than my neighbors. Instead, because I have transgressed the divine commandment, I stand condemned. Rather than not needing help from anybody, I desperately need help from somebody!
This is a painful, humbling realization, but in exposing the lie of self-righteousness, it sets our feet on the path to true righteousness. We can’t trust in ourselves. It’s already too late for that. Even if we do everything right from now on, we’ve already blown it.
Instead, we must trust in Christ who justifies the ungodly. We can’t boast in ourselves because we’re sooo much better than people in the world. Instead, our boasting never can be in anyone but Him.
The other day, Steve Wolfgang sent me a link to this article. In it, the author points out that James D. Vaughan, founding father of the Southern gospel genre of hymnody (though not the author of “Love Lifted Me”, despite what the article implies) was a leading figure in the local Ku Klux Klan. James Rowe (who was the author of “Love Lifted Me”) wrote racist lyrics for temperance-movement songs.
This is not terribly surprising. We are talking about Southern gospel, after all, a worship-music movement which flourished in the states of the former Confederacy a hundred years ago. By modern standards, both the ones who wrote those hymns and the ones who originally sang them were dyed-in-the-wool racists. The author implies that we need to “have a conversation” about whether those hymns should remain in the repertoire, the kind of conversation that usually ends with things getting canceled.
Really, though, the issue that the article raises is much larger even than racism. How do we handle hymns that were written by people with significant spiritual problems? From the perspective of New-Testament Christianity, the most famous hymnists of all time come with baggage that is as bad or even worse.
Isaac Watts, author of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and many other great hymns besides, was a hyper-Calvinist minister. Charles Wesley, who wrote “Love Divine”, was the brother and partner of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. Among modern writers, Keith and Kristyn Getty, the authors of “In Christ Alone”, are staunch and vocal Calvinists. I could say much the same about the authors of literally hundreds of the hymns in our repertoire.
Scripturally speaking, is the false teacher to be preferred to the racist?
One response is to say, “We should not sing such things.” Unless we approve of your life, we aren’t going to sing your hymn. However, if we follow through on such a conviction, our repertoire shrinks by at least 95 percent. Everything from “Abide with Me” to “As the Deer”—gone. Off to the bonfire it all goes!
I think most brethren would consider such a solution a trifle. . . extreme. The alternative, which is what all of us do in practice, is to separate the hymn from the hymnist. I don’t have to agree with everything Isaac Watts stood for to sing “When I Survey.” I only have to agree with “When I Survey”. Nor, indeed, am I endorsing anything about Isaac Watts other than the words that I am singing.
So too, I think, with Southern-gospel hymns written by authors with murky pasts. Yes, they believed, and in some cases wrote, some awful things. However, if our minds are on the human author when we sing a hymn, our minds are in the wrong place.
Those hymns are not memorials to Confederate generals or leaders of the KKK. They are memorials to God. If we use them for their intended purpose, we are glorifying Him. To that, what Scriptural objection can be raised?