Competing Theologies

Last week, in Sunday’s message, we waded into the grace/works debate.

It’s always so interesting to me when the Bible appears to contradict itself. What?!!? 

Proverbs 26:4 reads “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are” and 26:5, “Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation.” Which is it? Should I or shouldn’t I? That’s so great, because though they look exactly like opposites, obviously they are both true – it just takes wisdom to know when. 

In James and Romans, James and Paul reference the same Scripture (Gen 15:6 “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”) for, what seems like contrasting ends. James is the tiny book in the New Testament that stands out like a snowman in August because the theology sounds so unlike the others. It would be so much happier and make so much more sense in the Old Testament.

In a gorgeous landscape of faith, grace, and a merciful end to our works-driven religion – James says “faith without deeds is dead.” It feels like a record scratch, like Dylan picked up an electric guitar, or at the very least, an abrupt turn of the wheel into oncoming traffic (that doesn’t sound like ‘the very least’ at all;). Maybe the editor fell asleep and something was included that should not have been. But it was included, and we now have to figure out what to do with this jarring mixture of material.

So, we’ve been arguing these competing theologies for thousands of years.

Because we love nothing more than to compete. (That’s not true, there is only one thing we love more than competing – winning!!!) We love to argue points where we can show off our superior knowledge, where we can condescend to another viewpoint. The liberals/conservatives (whatever side you’re on) would see it our way if only they would educate themselves, if only they would open their eyes to simple facts. Of course, it’s grace/works, if only they would stop trying to make the Scriptures fit their lives and just study the Bible, if only they would open their eyes to simple facts. 

As it most often goes, study of anything leads to more and more questions. And the big question here is, have we spent so much time arguing that we lost the point along the way and, in that, sucked all of the beautiful transforming power out of the Gospel? 

I am not diminishing the importance of theology – our belief doesn’t matter too much if we’re believing in the wrong things. Example: If you really believe my dining room table will dunk a basketball this afternoon, your faith is probably misplaced. It matters what we believe, theology is vital. But it can twist itself into a circle where it becomes just another intellectual exercise, just another hypothetical that stays at arms length instead of piercing our hearts.

James and Paul sound like they’re on different sides of the stage in a debate, but that’s not the case. As we all understand, the things we believe (I mean really believe, way way deep down in our souls, not just say we believe because we’re in a certain group or because it’s the current popular trend) are pretty easy to see. You can tell what’s valuable to me, no matter how hard I try to pretend. We can only fake it for so long, and then our hearts spill out into the space between us. 

I heard Rob Bell say that you can tell where a preacher starts the story (in Genesis 1 or Genesis 3) is clear in every sermon, in the way he/she sees God, the world, you.

James is saying your faith/what we believe, must be reflected in our words, our actions, our lives. And why wouldn’t it? 

He’s saying our faith has no choice but to come out – if it’s not coming out, maybe it’s not our faith. Maybe our faith is in something else? 

I guess it’s possible that all of this competition, these arguments, our desire for winners (and losers), might be an accurate reflection of our faith.  

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