The Fear of Death

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. Hebrews 2:14-15

James Arthur Ray, the self-help guru and motivational author who gained fame as a guest speaker in the film The Secret, has been found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide last week. He faces a sentence of up to eleven years in prison.

Ray was known for his expensive motivational retreats where participants were subjected to “sweat lodges”, that is, sauna-like ceremonies used by Native American Shamans to detoxify the body. The botched sweat lodge that led to Ray’s conviction left three people dead and 18 hospitalised.

The reason behind Ray’s sweat lodges and the intended accompanying near-death experiences is explained in his own words: “The true spiritual warrior has conquered death and therefore has no fear or enemies in this lifetime or the next, because the greatest fear you’ll ever experience is the fear of what? Death. You will have to get to a point where you surrender and it’s OK to die.”

Ray is correct. The fear of death is indeed humanity’s greatest fear. But he is tragically mistaken when it comes to the method by which it is overcome. The one who delivers us from this fear is not a motivational guru, but Jesus Christ. And the way in which Christ does it is not through inducing near-death experiences whilst shouting motivational twaddle, but by destroying the source of death.

That makes a lot more sense. To try and overcome the fear of death whilst heading straight towards it is stupidity, not courage.

When Grace Becomes Cheap

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? James 2:14

Martin Luther once called the New Testament letter of James an “epistle of straw”. Struggling to reconcile Paul’s gospel of free grace with James’ demand for good works, Luther remarked that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could do so. Years before he had come to an understanding of God’s grace, and nothing could drag him back to his old life of trying to please an angry God through a system of good works. His cry became the cry of the Reformation: Sola Gratia! (Grace alone).

It is interesting to note that this phrase is often quoted, in some form, by Christians in discussions about moral issues, and usually seen as the last words on the subject. Like Luther, we side with Paul and choose to ignore James.

Yet James’ inclusion in the canon of Scripture is no accident. James does not attack or minimise our understanding of God’s grace, but rather expands it. Grace, according to James, does not only forgive sins, but also transforms the sinner. It includes both pardon and rehabilitation. Separate the two, and it is no longer grace.
These two dimensions of grace are strikingly illustrated in the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8). We all know what Jesus said to the Pharisees and love quoting him: “If anyone is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”, but we seem oblivious of his words spoken to the woman: “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, said Diettrich Bonnhoeffer. Let us heed James’ words, and not fall into the trap of thinking that God’s grace is a license to commit or condone sinful acts.

A Cleansed Conscience

Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Hebrews 10:22

The immediate effect of the primordial sin committed by our great ancestors is described as follows in the book of Genesis: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked…”

The Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented on this passage and described Adam and Eve’s experience as one of “shame”, namely that which gives “reluctant witness to its own fallen state.”

Indeed. Shame is inextricably linked to sin. If we are born into this world as sinners, as the Scriptures teach us, then we also bring with us a very real sense of guilt and shame. The problem of humanity’s struggle with feelings of guilt has been recognized by scholars from backgrounds as diverse as Soren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud’s. The problem cannot be denied. It is the solution that is more difficult to find.

According to the New Testament authors, the problem of guilt has been dealt with by the blood of the cross, and by the blood alone. Our legal, objective guilt has been atoned for, and as a result our subjective and experiential guilt is removed. A clean conscience is therefore the logical conclusion of our right standing with God.

Oftentimes Christians fail to understand this, and as a result they fail to draw a distinction between the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the condemnation of the enemy. They may even think there is something noble about their feelings of guilt, as though they are helping to pay for their sins.

Such an attitude defies the righteousness granted by God. As Watchman Nee once said: Let us side with God and not with the accuser of the brethren.

I Follow Paul

Be followers of me, as I also am of Christ. 1 Corinthians 11:1

In the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul rebukes the Christians at Corinth for having said “I follow Paul.” Yet, in chapter 11 of the same letter, he commands them: “Be followers of me.” Is he contradicting himself?

Not at all. It is clear from chapter 1 that the church in Corinth was divided into a number of factions, the reason being that people strongly identified themselves with the teachings of certain individuals. And so they were saying “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” and “I follow Cephas.” Paul sets the record straight by asking “Is Christ divided?” (1:13).

The message is clear: The gospel cannot be reduced to the teaching of one dynamic individual, group or denomination. This leads to religious pride and elitism. In the end it leads to full-blown sectarianism. Celebrity ministers and cult followings are anathema in the church of Jesus Christ.

The verse above does not contradict Paul’s remarks, but confirms them. Note the defining words “as I also am of Christ”. The apostle is simply saying: “You may follow me, but only insofar as I am following Christ.” Put differently: “Imitate me in the sense that I do not imitate anyone except Christ.” This is just another way of saying “Don’t even think of following me or any other human being.”

This idea does not come from Paul but from Jesus Christ himself. The key sentence of his ministry was “Follow me.” And, of course, he said things like “Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ” (Matthew 23:8, 10).

Jesus never saved us to become followers of other human beings. He saved us for himself. Let us keep it this way.