Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Show Me Your Faith

I’m having an interesting discussion with an anonymous poster about Barack Obama’s Christian faith. It’s all recorded in the comments section of an earlier post. But I think it deserves to be “heard” by more than me and “Anonymous Friend,” so here’s the slightly edited version of our conversation….

From Me:

Dear Friend,

Obama may be mistaken about how many roads lead to God. But the road he is on is the Jesus road. So his Christian confession is invalid because he is mistaken about whether OTHER people can reach God? I believe we should do all we can to assure that our view of God is consistent with the truth. But none of us in our fallen-ness is perfect in our understanding. Not you, not me, not Obama, no-one but Jesus Christ. For that reason, we must be very careful in nit-picking statements from others to determine if they're "in" or "out." So once again you are entitled to your opinion, but that doesn't make you right. And my best judge is Scripture.

From An Anonymous Friend

Thanks for your thoughtful replies.

I'm glad you agree that Christ made exclusive claims about salvation. We can disagree about how significant it is that Obama views this differently.

His comment denying exclusivity isn't the only statement by Obama that I found troubling, however. He described sin as violating his own moral code. ("Being out of alignment with my values.") With that definition, there really is no such thing as sin. Any genuine understanding of sin requires a moral code outside oneself. Does he give a more complete answer about sin in some other interview that might add some sophistication to what he said in the Chicago Sun Times interview?


Anonymous Friend

Fom Me:

Dear Friend,

I was friends with Barack Obama when he was a 14-year-old. He was not a believer then. I was. I read his first book before he entered politics. I was thrilled to read that my friend had become a Christian brother. And his description of how he came to Jesus rang true to the kid I knew and how God might get ahold of him.

But I am a Christian professional with theological training. I have been a volunteer and paid leader in Christian churches of many denominations and sizes for 35 years. I currently work for one denomination while I worship in a church outside that denomination. I do not agree fully with anyone in the church I work for or the church I attend. I don't expect that I ever will, because all of our understanding is at least somewhat flawed. I believe that God allows for that brokenness for those who claim Jesus. So my assessment of Obama's Christianity is not to say that I agree with him on every point. But he is not theologically trained. He is not a Christian professional. he may be confused or wrong about some things, or he might not express them with the nuance that I might or you might. That doesn't make his Christian confession or his Christian faith invalid.

I don't propose to understand exactly what he meant by a specific statement like "Being out of alignment with my values." I often misunderstand my wife when I think I understand. But I operate with an attitude of charity when trying to understand her. Rather than assume that she is lying or means some evil, I try to understand her meaning and assume that it is something good. Likewise when I here a vague statement like Obama's from a person who professes to be a Christian, I think I'm called to put the best spin on it rather than assume the worst.

What if he meant that sin is "Being out of alignment with my CHRISTIAN values," since he's already talked about those Christian values?

Still, it baffles me that so many Christian people are willing to believe Obama is not the Christian he says he is. It's as if they want him NOT to be a Christian. I wish others could feel the joy I felt when my friend became a brother.

From Anonymous:

The two topics we have discussed so far are not questions that should require much nuance to give a sensible answer. Jesus was straightforward about sin, and he was straightforward about being the only means to salvation. Anyone who has attended a Bible-believing church for 20 years should have no difficulty giving an adequate answer.

I think you are being a little too cute when you profess bafflement that Christians are looking beneath the surface of Obama's profession. If I were to meet my neighbor and he said he was a Christian, I would rejoice that he knew the Lord. At that point there would be no reason to inquire of his faith to test its maturity. Nor would there be reason to plumb the depths of his understanding.

If my daughter introduced me to a young man saying she intends to marry him, I would be glad to hear him say he is a Christian. However, I would also ask questions to see how mature his faith is and how closely he aligned his beliefs with Scripture.

Obama (and his supporters) clearly are offering his professed Christian beliefs as a reason to vote for him (or feel comfortable voting for him). Your original post even recognizes the propriety of holding up that profession to scrutiny. I don't think you should now accuse questioners of being killjoys for asking these questions.

Working in the church, I am sure you realize that there is often no correlation between living moral life and being saved. In fact, it seems the ability to navigate life with reasoning can actually be a hindrance to belief. If someone walked into your church who did good works and professed a belief in Jesus, but this belief bore no relationship to the teachings of the Bible (e.g., no concept of sin, no hope in a resurrection, and no reason to distinguish Jesus from other moral teachers), I hope you would counsel that person to consider the possibility that he believed merely in himself, and that he has merely applied a culturally acceptable label to that egocentric belief.


Your anonymous friend

From Me:

Dear Friend,

Barack Obama's profession of faith is not some political ploy. I first read about his faith before he was in politics. Now that he is a political figure and he speaks openly about his faith, his brothers and sisters attack rather than rejoice. It's sad.

I have no problem with Christians holding professing Christians to a standard. And as you indicate this measure becomes more important when we are considering someone close to us or someone in leadership.

My issues are twofold
1) That standard should be biblical. I made the case in my original post that as far as I can see, Barack Obama's profession of faith and life of faith meet biblical standards.

2) It seems to me that some Christian people WANT Barack Obama not to be a Christian. There seems to be an attitude of trying to prove Obama's faith profession false. Honestly, I see no Scriptural justification for trying to prove someone who calls himself a Christian to be a liar. This is not false prophet territory. This is a man who says he's a Christian, who meets biblical criteria, who prays regularly, who reads the Bible to discover God's truth, who lives a life to reflect his relationship to God through Christ, and his brothers and sisters are trying to prove that that he doesn't belong in the family. What household of God do these people belong to?

Cal Thomas is in no position from such a distance to proclaim that Barack Obama is not a Christian when Obama's profession meets a biblical standard. I believe this is where the oft-misused words of Jesus "judge not lest ye be judged" actually does apply. Cal Thomas does not have enough information to decide Obama is NOT a Christian. He can wonder, he can say "looks like he is." He can say "I believe he is." He could theoretically even say, "I see no evidence of his Christianity." But he cannot say --based on the evidence presented --that Barack Obama is not a Christian. His profession meets biblical criteria, and his life demonstrates both the change and the continued life of Christian discipleship. As my friend Steve said this weekend, "Short of crawling inside another man's heart, that's all any of us can go on when ‘judging’ another one's relationship to Jesus.”

But all of this is independent of whether anyone votes for him. He will be your Christian brother if he becomes President and he will be your Christian brother if he doesn't.

More to the point:
He will be your Christian brother if you vote for him, and he will be your brother if you don't. You can choose your President, but don't be confused: your vote cannot keep Barack Obama out of your family.

Now I’d like to address your issues a little more directly:
1. What to you would be a “sensible,” “adequate” answer to the question “What is sin?”? Where do you find that definition in Scripture? Where is Jesus’ straightforward answer?

I’m not saying I don’t believe there is sin. I even agree with you that the concept of sin is a basic tenet of the Christian faith as recorded in the Bible. What I am questioning is that there is a simple, direct definition of sin, which is exclusive of other definitions. The Bible doesn’t even always use the same Greek word for what we translate “sin” in English. So what is your acceptable definition, and where did you get it?

2. I did not say it is unacceptable for Christians to look “beneath the surface of Obama’s (or anyone else’s) profession” of faith. What baffles me and saddens me is that Chrisitan people seem eager to prove that a man who professes to be a Christian and who demonstrates that Christian faith in his life is somehow lying or totally deceived.

I didn’t say (to use a Wesleyan term) that he is near perfection. I said that by all that I can see, using biblical criteria, he is a Christian. I didn’t accuse anyone of being a “killjoy.” I am horrified that it seems there are Christian people who are bent on proving the illegitimacy of Obama’s profession. To what end? You can’t make him a heathen by calling him one any more than I can make him a Christian by calling him one. And you’re not killing my joy regarding his salvation. You are killing my joy regarding your own discipleship. If your life in Christ has brought you to the point where you would rather assume another Christian is a liar than claim him as a brother, then my sadness is for you, my brother or sister. I won’t say you’re not my brother or sister, but I will feel sadness for you.

3. I agree that often there is no correlation between morality and Christian faith. There are moral people in all faiths and moral people with no religious faith at all. But you are using Obama’s morality as an indication of his LACK of Christian faith? And the fact that he uses reasoning in his decisions proves a LACK of Christian faith? Good works becomes a sign of his LACK of Christian faith? What false prophets have you been listening to?

Remember James 2:14-18
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

If Barack Obama were professing faith and had no deeds to demonstrate that faith, I’d have some questions. And if he had good deeds and rejected Jesus, I’d have some questions. But here’s a man who professes faith in Jesus and shows it by his deeds, and his brothers and sisters think they can exclude him, vote him out of the family. Well, fortunately it’s not their call.

So let’s look at your hypothetical about someone walking into my church, (although this is not about some hypothetical someone but about a real live person who I know or at least knew). If that person professed Jesus and didn’t seem to have what I consider the complete truth on sin, the Resurrection, and Jesus, I would welcome them as a brother or sister. I would then ask them lots of questions as I walk with them in their lives to make sure I understand what they really believe. And while in their lives I would try to guide them to the truth. But I do not invalidate their faith because it doesn’t line up exactly the way I think it should.

But from a distance, when I’m not able to be in a person’s life to ask those probing questions, all I can do is what I started this post with. I look at the man, his life, and the Scriptures. Looks to me like Barack Obama is a Christian.

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