Killing the Sacred Cow
A Beginner's Guide to Why we are so Offensive
Over the years there have been quite a few folks who have wanted to help polish me up, or package a palatable version of my teachings – as if this Gospel message could be delivered in a nonoffensive way. If I would just sober it up, watch my language and walk a straight line – they figure my ministry could grow by leaps and bounds and one day I may arrive at the pinnacle of ministry success by landing on TBN or something.
Jesus is the Stone the builders rejected. Just as in the days of the early church, the Gospel remains a stumbling block, an offense to the natural mind. The wisdom of God is as foolishness to a humanity that has staked it’s misguided hopes on itself and it’s own man-made religious ascent to God. The Gospel is not a scandal because it is difficult, but because it is so easy. Not because it is depressing nor that it elicits striving, but because it is so joyous and liberating. And there is no way around it: the Message brings people to a point of crisis that can’t be explained away – only embraced in the raw mystery of faith.
Over the years I’ve gained a bit of a reputation for tipping sacred cows. Doctrines and beliefs that are deemed so foundation are often really our skewed projections of our own fearful, fallen assumptions about God. Needless to say, there has been a high cost over the years for challenging the status quo. Those who enter ministry expecting to make a lot of friends either misunderstand ministry or they’ve never preached the Gospel.
But in a postmodern time where everyone is challenging everything sacred it is also quite trendy to be a voice of “reform” on social media. Know for certain that we do not simply tear down because it’s in vogue. Our aim is not simply to offend, but to peel back the blinders of bad doctrine and misunderstanding to bring clarity, truth and freedom. I’ve heard it said that every new revelation brings a new set of friends! Yes offense does happen. But our motives are to bring the glorious liberty of the Gospel in a way that is shockingly clear – even if it rocks the boat. And our chief goal is to proclaim Jesus – the deconstruction of religious idols is simply a secondary but necessary means to an end.
In this article, I would like to bring you through a short history of our own journey of discovery. It is both theological and experiential. In the following bullet-point sections I want to address some of the major revelations that have defined our ministry over the past ten years.
Each section deals with a new turn in the road for us and another sacred cow we began to roast. For many who are new to our teachings, they wonder, “Why on earth are people so offended by Crowder?” To others who have tracked with us over the years, and who have watched the progression in our beliefs, it is abundantly clear why the offense has taken place! With each step of the way and each bend in the river, we’ve longed to fully embrace what the Lord has shown us. What I may have lacked in diplomacy, tact or ministerial protocol I have hoped to make up in honesty, clarity and lack of pretension.
Each of the following sections is by no means a complete compendium of everything we believe. But to get hold of just one of them inevitably starts a domino effect that can lead you into the other ones. I am aware that to handle such scandalous topics in such a brief fashion in one article may open more cans of worms and prompt more questions than it offers explanations. Nevertheless these are some of the more important and defining revelations we have carried along the way that have not only liberated me personally, but have caused shockwaves of glorious chaos to echo through the halls of religion everywhere we go. If one section provokes your curiosity, we have provided some recommended books for reading along the way.
One of the first heifers we started to barbecue many years ago was the cessationist, rationalistic notion of a non-miraculous Christianity. The Gospel is a supernatural message. And signs and wonders follow those who believe. The Gospel is not a matter of talk, but of power (Acts 4:20). When my first book The New Mystics came on the scene ten years ago, my aim was to reintroduce the church to its supernatural roots by recovering our 2,000-year heritage of documented miracle workers throughout church history. The “unusual signs and wonders” worked in the early church did not cease with the book of Acts. Beyond just the healing, prophecy or gift of tongues you’ll find in your local Pentecostal church today – our history is chock full of bizarre miracles that have testified of
the Gospel and changed the course of rulers and nations. There are hagiographies of hundreds of believers who have literally floated off the ground; beheaded martyrs picked up their own heads after
they were lopped off; men communicated to animals; others have glowed and transfigured just as our Lord on Mt. Tabor. There are countless stories of mind-boggling exploits.
Considered fanciful renditions of overactive imaginations by critical paper-pushing theologians today,
these are not stories locked into the dusty annals of the past. But a line of progression of those moving in a tangible manifestation of power has occurred right up until today and is available for anyone who wants it. From the faith healing movement of the 1950s (men like Jack Coe would walk down a line of 100 wheelchair patients, just ripping every one to their feet), to the widespread modern movements like Bethel Church and many others – thousands are realizing that the miraculous is right here. The Kingdom is at hand. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is living and active in
So for many years, we were associated with the “supernatural stream” amid the heavy focus that has returned to the miraculous in the charismatic arm of the church over the past 20 years following the Toronto Renewal. We have seen phenomenal miracles in our own meetings. Hundreds healed of tumors, cancers, deafness and blindness. And the more extraordinary displays such as rain falling inside buildings, huge sums of money appearing in pockets or supernatural weight loss of 20, 40 even 80 pounds! Nothing strange about it. Supernatural Christianity is normative Christianity.
Critics often speak from a vantage of insecurity. They accuse Charismatics of arrogantly appealing to the miraculous to prove their “spiritual superiority” over the average Christian. And God knows many Charismatics do view themselves that way! But operating in the supernatural has nothing whatsoever to do with ranking, merit, self-effort or having a bigger Holy Ghost than your neighbor. It is simply a realization of our inheritance – the simple fact that this stuff is available as a gift to us thanks to Jesus – and the exploration of that discovery will continue to unfold in the days to come. The word must be preached with power.
Early on, we realized that the mystics of the church held a rich key for us today – because the divine power they walked in was not divorced from intimacy. Rather, it was a fruit of it. As much as we appreciated the miraculous, the thing that fueled me more than anything was the intimate presence of Jesus. The wine of His love is intoxicating. While modern evangelicals think the word “mystic” only applies to a new ager with a Ouija board, I had actually cracked enough books to know that the church mystics had nothing whatsoever to do with the occult. It was a term for those who were enraptured by the mystery of Christ and who spent their lives enjoying the practice of God’s presence (and their lives too were marked by the supernatural, but only as a byproduct of enjoying Him). Beyond pat answers and palatable theological solutions, there is a place of engaging in the tangible love of God in a place of contemplation and experiential enjoyment. For years I had appreciated the mystics. But more and more it became clear to me the only way forward was the ecstatic pleasure of the Lover of our souls.
While fear of the unknown keeps many mainline denominations from embracing a supernatural version of Christianity – the fact is that Charismatic/Pentecostalism is the fastest growing stream of the church around the world today. Most Christians believe in some form of the supernatural. But we have been equal opportunity offenders to those Charismatics as well as the average liturgical Lutheran. Why? For one, we have simply lived and followed out the “positive” side of Charismatic beliefs systems to their ultimate conclusions. For all their talk about “pursuing Holy Spirit” if you actually start to enjoy Him too much you’re going to piss someone off in the Penecostal world.
Rather than stopping short with healing, prophecy and “run-of-the-mill” charismatic phenomena and spiritual gifts – we embraced a full Biblical spectrum of unusual, bizarre miracles, signs and wonders. This itself challenges many. But a whole new spectrum of controversy arises when one lays aside his pursuit of the gifts and begins to fully embrace the person of Holy Spirit Himself. Of course the charismatic mantra of “pursue the Giver not the gifts” has long been touted but rarely lived. What does it mean to fully embrace the presence of God? Biblically and historically the outpouring of Holy Spirit is allegorized as “new wine.” The mystics of the church spoke of ecstasies and intoxication on the love of God akin to Acts chapter two when the apostles were mocked as being physically drunk. Scripture is chock full of individuals experiencing
ecstasies, trances, raptures - what is referred to as the “infilling” or “baptism” of the Spirit.
John G. Lake writes, “Now what is a trance? A trance is the Spirit taking predominance over the mind and body, and for the time being the control of the individual is by the Spirit; but our ignorance of the operations of God is such that even ministers of religion have been known to say it is the devil.”
Giving oneself over to full “possession” by the Spirit of God is an intimidating proposition. Because of man’s tainted perception of a God of wrath and vengeance – we tend to want a buffer – keeping Him at arm’s length. Religionists even appeal to scriptures about “self control” in a way that wrongly prohibits “God control.” But to be infused by Mr. Love – by Mr. Joy – means that the natural senses are overcome by divine bliss. Not terror, sourness and legalism. We are afraid to hand over the reins to Him in a very tangible, personal way. But this fear is unfounded. The joy of the Lord subverts our overly serious, self-important religious notions aimed at pleasing a God who is already absolutely pleased with us thanks to Jesus.
Far from swallowing up our humanity in fastings and self-deprecating piety – the Spirit of God liberates us to have fun and embrace a natural life lived out in His presence. More and more we gave ourselves over to this trance-like glory, which was the subject of my second book The Ecstasy of Loving God. As strange as the “wine of the Spirit” seems to the analytical mind, it is nothing less than drinking in His intoxicating love. We are made for those rivers of pleasure at His right hand. Humanity is called to delight in the presence of God. He is the only purest satisfaction that we long for in the depths of our soul. Clinically this all sounds reasonable on paper – but to live it – to show up at one of our meetings and see people hammered drunk, sprawled across the room … well that’s something different altogether. It’s too real. Suddenly they weren’t associating us with the “supernatural stream” anymore (even though the miracles just got crazier) … Now we were just the “drunk guys.” It was during this period of writing The Ecstasy of Loving God, I began to provide teaching and historical background on this trance-like glory in the lives of believers.
As I began to delve into church history, I realized that people experiencing a tangible intoxication of
His presence marked every significant movement of God in the earth. While the outward displays include things like uncontrollable fits of laughter, shaking, swooning, etc. (or at minimum, a goose bump during the worship service) – at the very core was an individual’s deep encounter with the goodness of God. This wine wasn’t a strange Pentecostal side dish – it’s the wine of His love. We’re made for it in the depths of our being. In the First Great Awakening, men like John Wesley and George Whitfield used terms like “fits” or “enthusiasms” to describe the ecstasies of God’s presence. In the Second Great Awakening, a common term was “the jerks.” The same experience occurred widespread among the massive revival of the French prophets of the 1700s, who were called the “convulsionaires” (due to their literal shaking in the presence of God). Hence we also get the denominational names “Quaker” and “Shaker” for their similar manifestations. With the advent of Pentecostalism at Azusa Street at the turn of the past century, the term “filled with the Spirit” was coined to describe this activity, and was thus popularized. But it quickly devolved into falling over one time in church, and assuming one’s entire life was “Spirit filled.” While Holy Spirit was indeed poured out on all flesh – and we are all recipients of Him – that does not in any way mean every man is continually, consciously drinking of the love of God on a daily basis. Not actively enjoying and engaging in the One who is already here. Various Pentecostal revivalists throughout the 20th century (such as Maria Woodworth Etter, known as the “trance evangelist”) would at times appeal to individuals to embrace a fuller life in the Spirit – not just falling over once in a meeting and calling it done. In her meetings in the early 20th century, ten thousand people would corporately fall into trances. In St. Louis, she was arrested on grounds of insanity.
Renewal movements such as the Toronto Outpouring in the 1990s began to reawaken the church to the need for a lifestyle of the practice of the presence of God. Terminology in this movement included phrases such as “soaking” in God’s presence. Something that the church mystics always referred to throughout the centuries as “contemplation.” All in all, we are simply referring to the “practice of the presence of God.” It is a simple enjoyment and realization of Him at all times. Trances, ecstasy, raptures – these were all terms pointing to the same thing – actively, tangibly, consciously enjoying God.
What has been the result of embracing God’s tangible glory as our chief end? Absolute beautiful chaos! We lost our ability to abide by the rote, lifeless trappings of legalistic religious activity. Every meeting began to turn into a party – a celebration, a love feast. From costumes and rave music to unabashed goofiness … our “Drunken Glory Tours” were wild, frenzied explosions of joy and love. The goal was not merely to provide a good sermon or even work a fancy miracle. It was all about enjoyment of God Himself. Even our language was adapted to try and convey the bliss of the new wine of the Spirit. Not only is the liberty offensive. Not only is joy unspeakable offensive to the depressive religious mind. Dropping Christianese is offensive enough! The mere attempt to articulate that God is better than drugs, “Get high on Jesus” carried radical offense. But the fruit was seeing countless people freed from bondage, addictions and depression – even at the cost of gladly losing many speaking invitations to formal megachurches!
Union & Perfection
It didn’t take long to realize that even “drinking in the Spirit” can quickly get turned into a work – as people saw it as another attempt to religiously get closer to God. “How do I get drunk in the Spirit?” they would ask. I would respond, “Stop trying – that’s divination! I’m not ‘trying’ to get drunk in the Spirit. I’m believing that I already am!” People didn’t realize they were already in the wine room – that we are already seated in Heavenly places. Drinking wasn’t a work to climb into union with God – it’s an act of enjoying a union that we already have thanks to Jesus.
Whether they used language like “drinking” or just “being filled” - the denominational catch phrases are irrelevant – it became ever increasingly clear that most Christians are generally pursuing the same thing: more of God. For many who even attended our meetings, they still viewed soaking/drinking/ecstasies/etc. as a means of “getting closer to God.” As if the practice of His presence was a process of arriving nearer to Him or somehow attaining a greater portion of Holy Spirit. Even in this ecstatic movement that was emerging – where folks were learning to enjoy God for the first time and appreciate a rich life of tangible experience – something foundational was greatly amiss.
It was becoming clear that much of the church was missing a crucial element: a revelation of the Gospel.
Of course everyone speaks so glibly of “the Gospel” as though it’s something they learned in Sunday school, yet they appeal to all manner of religious disciplines to get hold of God as if they don’t have Him. The Gospel is the scandalously good news that you have already arrived. Thanks to Jesus you are absolutely one with God, whether you know it or not. There is no separation. The two have become one. You are flesh of His flesh, bone of His bone – one spirit with the Lord. The Gospel is not the delayed message of potentially getting Him in increments, but rather it is the revelation that He has already given you all of Himself! Doesn’t mean we know it, feel it or believe it … but as we hear this Good News, it changes everything.
We gradually began to see that the core of all religion was an attempt to make oneself right with something outside of oneself – in order to better oneself. But the Gospel is the rock solid truth that God is pleased as punch with us because He has already set us perfectly right with Himself in Jesus. Not only that, but He destroyed the entirety of our old sinful nature in His own broken body on the cross – and we can tangibly live a life of perfection thanks to this reality that we are not sinners anymore. And if I am not really a sinner anymore – then nothing whatsoever holds me back from His continual, abiding presence. The struggle with sin in our daily life disappears completely when we realize the truth of our identity: I am a holy, blameless son perfected before Him by no effort of my own. So much of what was taught as “grace” was merely a cover-up for sin. “Nobody is perfect. We’re all human. You are just a sinner … but a ‘forgiven’ sinner.” But every single one of Paul’s letters appealed to something far different – in every one of his letters, he gives you your death certificate! “Your old nature died with Christ … You’re not a sinner, you’re a saint – so live like it!” Finally the pieces were all coming together. So many people longed for the glory and presence of God. They longed for miracles. Yet they were still trying to fix themselves up, clean themselves up and polish up their old nature – because they were still struggling with a false identity!
Furthermore, they were trying to clean themselves up to “get more of God” when Colossians 2 clearly tells us that by our union with Christ we are already full of the Godhead! Ironically, our very attempt to grab hold of Him was the very thing holding us back by assuming He isn’t already here!
This was the very substance of our joy and intoxication. It was the realization that my old anxious, depressed, sinful self was dead! And now I am plugged into everything I always wanted. I didn’t need to “press in” to God anymore. I had been pressed into! I didn’t need to be a “God chaser” anymore. He chased me down! I didn’t need to strive to “get closer” to Him. How can you get closer to your Siamese twin! At this time, Romans six was fully solidified as the bedrock of all we knew and built upon. I was co-crucified with Christ. I had been buried with Him and raised to new life in complete union with Him. What an offensive claim to those still working off their checklist to please the Father!
We began to see how huge and offensive this Gospel message really is … because it invalidates every ministry aimed at self-improvement. We are already fully united to Him … that is not something that progressively happens over a lifetime of sanctification as we were told by religionists. No, sanctification is a person (1 Cor. 1). And we were united to Him fully on the cross before we ever voted on the matter. The only lifelong process is the discovery of the riches and glory that are already ours, fully bestowed upon us thanks to Jesus. Christian growth is not a process of rooting out sin, but discovering the glory of Christ that’s already within us.
It was at this time that I wrote my most important work, Mystical Union: Stuff They Never Told you
About the Finished Work of the Cross. The shockwaves were instant. So much of the charismatic
voodoo formulas for trying to access the heavens, get closer to God, etc. were suddenly seen for what
they were: religious witchcraft and divination. Our human efforts were never required in this salvation/sanctification/glorification process. At the same time, I released my book Seven Spirits Burning, which was more than just an explanation of the Seven Spirits of God (Rev. 1, 4, 5; Isa. 11), but it was also an act of throwing down the gauntlet – a pneumatology book (study of Holy Spirit) that was rooted completely in what Jesus did to give us His Spirit – not what we must do to drum Him up.
More than ever at this time we resolved to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. When so many ministries are based upon “your own cross” – blathering about what you must do to kill off your old self to please God or access His Spirit – there are few who realize that Jesus carried your cross! The cross of man was being preached, not the cross of Christ. We’ve already been fully baptized into His death. Circumcised of our old nature. Christ did it single handedly. This was the one and only key to continual, sustained fulfillment and the core revelation that enables us to live in constant unbroken fellowship with His Spirit. It invalidates every strenuous prayer and fasting routine and every new charismatic formula that comes down the pike promising added spirituality if you will only “do this or that.” Freedom from sin is a scandal!
Let me tell you that when we really began to preach the unadulterated message of the cross – this put the knife to the daddy of all sacred cows. It seemed that everyone had been mixing a bit of law and human effort into their grace … but grace has to be drunk straight! The Charismatics got angry because the Gospel invalidates their self-help formulas of inner healing. As simple as the message is, many didn’t understand it, simply saying, “Crowder has gone off into theology these days” (a snide way of insinuating that I don’t just talk about miracles all day long, despite the fact that they still happen in all our meetings!). And of course with a new sacred cow you get a new label. Some thought we were preaching antinomianism or “license to sin.” Greasy grace … or a new term coined by one of our accusers “hypergrace!”
The message of our true identity, our ever-present union and absolute freedom from sin seems so sacrilegious when the majority report is a message of dual nature, death to self, distance from God and delayed promises. But it is the Gospel.
It would be a mistake to say that the message of grace hit us all at once like a ton of bricks in just one day. Layer upon layer of bad theology began to strip away like grave clothes. Scriptures which had been mistranslated, taken out of context or overlooked came screaming off the pages – highlighting the glorious truth that Christ saved us singlehandedly. We realized we could never disappoint God, because He had never been banking on our performance to begin with! He had never expected us to fulfill “our side” of the covenant relationship. Christ, in stepping into our humanity, became our human response to the Father! We were, are and forevermore will be fully represented to God as perfect. And this is not just a theoretical, positional, legal concept. But we can live out that perfection everyday in the happiness of holiness.
Suddenly a domino effect of reevaluation began to happen as we began to revisit so many “foundational” doctrines we once held to be true now in the clearer light of the Gospel of grace. For many people, one of the first pet doctrines that initially get challenged at this point in their walk is a gross modern misunderstanding of atonement.
Ever since the early renewal days I had realized God is in a good mood. But now I really had to think it through on all levels.
I had always been raised to believe that when Jesus took the sins of the world upon Himself, He did so to turn away the Father’s wrath. God was a schizophrenic – His Jesus-sided-face loved us, but there was another darker side – a legal face that was full of anger and bloodlust toward sinners. I was taught that Jesus essentially paid God off to love us, and that the Father hurled all of His wrath and anger onto Jesus on the cross so that we could be saved. I was taught that on the cross, the Father had forsaken His Son. But in fact, this concept called “penal substitution” was actually a doctrine of demons. This was never taught by the early church fathers, and was actually more of an “Americanized version” of the Gospel.
On the cross, the Trinity was not imploding on itself. The Father never once turned His back on the Son. Jesus never said, “My Father you have forsaken Me.” Jesus asked a question, “Why?” In fact, He was asking our question “why?” whenever we feel forsaken by a God who never forsakes anybody. The Father never turned His back on the Son. The truth is that Jesus was stepping into our blindness to the love of God, to fully empathize with our condition and liberate us from it.
Suddenly I was flooded with a whole different narrative. Jesus said, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). That was never temporarily suspended on the cross. He also said, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:11). The Father never jumped out of Jesus on the cross. And in John 16:32 He said, “You [disciples] will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.” This also spoke of when He would go to the cross. And 2 Corinthians 5:19, ”To wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos to Himself.” The Father was not turning His back - He had better than front row seats! He was in Christ, reconciling the cosmos.
I had thought God was our enemy and His wrath needed to be abated by human sacrifice. But what a twisted immoral monster had been proclaimed to me in my youth. God was never my enemy. “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (Col. 1:21- 22). The fact is that God had never opposed me. In my delusion, I had set myself up as His enemy … but He had never returned the favor. He was always positively for me, even in my sinfulness.
But doesn’t this make light of the wrath of God? No, people have been making light of the love of God. I do believe in God’s furious wrath. But God does not love on some days and hate on other days. He does not simply love as an action, otherwise He could hate as an action. God does not love – God is Love. All He is capable of is love. Even His wrath is merely a hot extension of His love! It is a big resounding “NO!” to sinfulness itself, because of what sinfulness does to destroy and molest His children.
The blood was never about paying off a sacrifice-demanding deity. The blood was for us! Hebrews 10:22 declares, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience. …” The sacrifice of Christ was never about paying off God to love us or bridge a gap of separation from His end. Isaiah 59 tells us our sins “separated us from God” but they never “separated God from us.” Big difference there. We were the ones running into the bushes like Adam – we were the ones withdrawing and pulling away from relationship, love and vulnerability. But God was never pulling away from us. On the cross, Jesus was not twisting the Father’s arm to love us; His love is unconditional. On the cross, Jesus was not twisting the Father’s arm to be gracious toward us; His grace is unconditional. He was not holding back some dark side of God. To see Jesus is to see the love of the entire Trinity. On the cross, Jesus was not changing God. … On the cross, Jesus was changing you!
Suddenly the lights came on … if the cross was not about paying off a bloodthirsty deity, then what was it all about? The cross was about radically renovating us! Jesus stepped into our darkness, our decay, our insecurity, our fears and inhibitions. He embraced our sickness, our disease, our alienation and hardheaded stubbornness. He assumed our fallenness, our blindness and our coldness … He sucked every last drop of it down the black hole of His own broken, servant body – brought it to a final end – and spit us right back out the other side of the grave a brand new creation!
The early church fathers never preached that Jesus was saving us from God. He was saving us from sin itself! The atonement means many, many things that are too vast to discuss here. But one thing we realized for certain was that the Father was not afflicting the Son. We considered Him afflicted Isaiah tells us. But the Father wasn’t killing Jesus. We were. The Father was indeed pleased in the bruising of the Son – not because He’s a masochist, but because in the bruising of the Son He saw the adoption of the nations. It never would have been “forgiveness” if blood was demanded by God. That would have been tit-for-tat legal retribution, not absolution. We demanded blood. We killed the Son of God. But He willingly laid down His life so that we could trust Him and display His love and absorb our darkness. The cross was not about God’s wrath, but ours. It was not about some abstract legal exchange … it was about love.
Take away the moody, schizophrenic god of wrath from most churches and they will not know whom to worship anymore. This takes the sacred cow barbecue to whole new level. Without fearful divine retribution hanging over our heads … most people have no real perception of Him. We start to realize that the Abba of Jesus isn’t the angry G.O.D. we were taught to fear in our youth.
Inclusion & Hell
At this point in the game, things start getting more dangerous. To suggest that God really is in a good mood almost instantly prompts questions on the topic of hell. And to begin tackling hell in a sound Biblical way, one must also address the doctrine of election. And to address election, one has to tackle the biggest dogfight in theology for the past few centuries – Calvinism and Arminianism. As I said earlier, a domino effect begins to occur as the revelation of grace forces us to revisit so many overlapping yet tightly held doctrinal systems. This is not for the faint of heart. But before you have a theological brain aneurism … let us remember that we live from a place of mystery. Truth is not a doctrine; He is a Person. And as we keep our focus on Jesus, there is rest in the fact that we need not have all the answers – the Answer has us.
To even begin talking about hell, the narrow-minded evangelical fundamental mind assumes you only have two options: believe in their version of hell or else you are a universalist.
And so at this phase of the game, I released my next two books … which are really companion books – offering a strong dose of theological Prozac to cheer up our perspectives on many of these hot topics. Chosen for Paradise deals with the doctrine of God’s election or “choice” of mankind. It is an addendum to Cosmos Reborn, which radically revisits the new birth, hell, etc. through a lens of the finished work of the cross. Herein, I Biblically dismantle the lie of penal substitution and attempt to reveal the heart of the Father as seen in the Son who died to purge His children from the problem of sin. But in fact, God was in Christ reconciling the entire cosmos to Himself. Suddenly it became more and more clear that God was not against certain segments of society. At the cross, all of humanity was included in the Last Adam. Jesus did not die merely as a man, but as mankind. There were reams of “all” verses that began to leap off the pages to me and my friends. As death came through one man, so also the resurrection came through one man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Cor. 15:21-22).
Evangelicals will vehemently deny that the word “all” means “all” but there it is over and over and over in the sacred texts … “and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross” (Col.1:20), and “to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment – to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Eph. 1:10). Jesus Christ is “the atoning sacrifice...for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). The “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) tells us that, “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself” (John 12:34).
The fact is that all of humanity was included in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To suggest this fact, a person is instantly labeled a “universalist” because unfortunately most folks get their theological labels from Wikipedia and have never studied out inclusion or unlimited atonement. Jesus did not just die for the elect that He “chose” (limited atonement) while intentionally choosing others to fry forever in their own fat in hell, as our Calvinist brothers believe. That would make God Himself (rather than sin, the devil, etc.) to be mankind’s greatest enemy. Nor did He leave salvation up to us in our flimsy, crooked willpower to “choose Him” or by trying to drum up enough faith to make it in the God club as our striving Pentecostal Arminian brothers believe. You did nothing to earn your salvation and you can do nothing to lose it. Perhaps the biggest lie of Western Christianity is that we are saved by our own faith! No – you are saved by grace! A completely free gift. Faith is simply the lens by which we begin to see, recognize or realize that salvation. But it was given to us before we ever voted on the matter. The Gospel does not demand faith. The Gospel supplies faith. As we hear of God’s love and inclusion of us, faith is an ecstatic “Yes!” to that pronouncement.
Suddenly if everyone is included, people get nervous that you are writing off the hell that they know and love! Of course religionists love to hold onto the hell verses – but they quickly dismiss the “all” verses, the universal texts that suggest all mankind was included in the saving act of Christ. The fact is there are no more outsiders and insiders. All men have been accepted whether they know it or not. Are you free to reject your acceptance? Of course! You are free to reject Him all you want. But you can never make Him stop accepting you. As C.S. Lewis said, “the gates of hell are locked from the inside.” You are free to live in your own self-imposed hellish prison as long as you want. But the gates of Heaven are always open day and night (Rev. 21). Whatever hell is, or to whatever degree it is populated – we must stop blaming God for it. He is not the enemy of the damned; He is the Savior of the damned.
Our perspective on hell has been radically backward. And the western version of hell, which is more a tradition of man than anything else, must be revisited in light of the Gospel. Our Orthodox brothers in the East say that “heaven” and “hell” are really our own human language for what it’s like to be in the presence of God. You either love it or you’re going to hate it. But we all ultimately go to the same place – His presence. There is not a single verse that says hell is “separation” from God. David said, “If I go to the depths of hell, there you are!” (Psalm 139:8). And the apostle Peter tells us that Christ Himself preaches to those souls in prison. Maybe just maybe we don’t have all the logical, analytical answers on this topic. But one thing for certain is that we have misjudged and mischaracterized the Father as the supreme, unrelenting torturer of mankind – which is simply not the case.
In Cosmos Reborn I dealt extensively with the inclusion of mankind in Christ, as well as presented a thorough teaching on the subject of hell. And in Chosen for Paradise I showed how God was not choosing/electing some over others – but rather Jesus Christ is both the electing God and the elected man! Jesus is the Chosen One on behalf of all humanity. I revisited the election chapters of Romans 9-11 (i.e. God loved Jacob, but hated Esau) – the most misunderstood section of the New Testament – and cast them in the context of grace and the finished work of Christ who loves everybody.
But one can teach until he is blue in the face. Offense cannot be avoided here. To suggest that all men are loved and included by God is truly the scandal of the Gospel. Feathers will ruffle and name-calling will abound. I am not a universalist … but I do have hope! Even God “wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:4). And if you don’t have this hope … if you actually want men to fry in their own fat forever? Well guess where you’re probably going …
For our final section, I would like to address a topic that is really nothing new … it’s a sacred cow we’ve been cooking up for many years. For ages we have taught against the heresy of gnosticism – which is the very core of religion and the church has been riddled with it from the beginning. Almost all of Paul’s church plants fell into one of two errors – legalism or gnosticism. And while parishioners today barely know the meaning of the word, their minds are unfortunately tainted with its influence.
On a bigger scale, the entire western world has been greatly influenced by Greco-rationalistic thinking. The Greek mind perceives the world through a lens called dualism. Dualistic thinking says there is a separation between the physical and spiritual world. A separation between the seen and unseen, between the material and non-material world. A separation between the natural and supernatural – heaven and earth. But our Eastern brothers – such as the Eastern Orthodox Church – never embraced this mindset over the centuries. For them, God holds all things together; and all things are sustained in Him. He truly exists in all and through all. The natural and spiritual life were never intended to be partitioned off from one another. And this is most clearly summed up when we look at the incarnation – that God and man exist perfectly united in the person of Jesus Christ.
The fact that Jesus Christ took on a physical body blows dualistic thinking out of the water. Dualism is not a Biblical concept, but a pagan one that is based on an ancient religion called Neoplatonism. And in the western mindset, our dualisms have radically blinded us to the glory of God that is present and intricately woven into our every day natural existence. We perceive God as “over there” or “in the church building” or at minimum there are parts of our daily natural existence which are somehow “separate” from God that occur “outside” of His presence. We divide life in terms of secular and sacred.
Gnosticism is the ancient heresy that takes dualistic thinking to the next level. Gnosticism not only perceives a so-called separation between the material and spiritual world – but it goes as far as to say the material world is evil. And thus for the gnostic, spiritual growth is all about escaping the “lower nature” or the physical container of the material world. The goal is to escape our own humanity. For the gnostic, the body itself is evil. But such an idea runs radically counter to the scripture. In speaking negatively about the “flesh” (sarx), the apostle Paul never vilifies our physical bodies. Though he does use the term to reference our “old nature” or our old inward propensity toward sinfulness in Adam, which has now been crucified with Christ.
Conversely, the apostle John tells us that Jesus Christ did not simply become a man, but that He became sarx … He became flesh! Gnostics hate the idea that God would become flesh, because physical, material flesh is considered evil. And thus John says that anyone who denies Jesus came in the flesh is of the antichrist! Gnosticism is the core of religion and is the core of the anti-gospel. This is why any physical, material world pleasure is always considered wicked by religionists. For crying out loud, you can’t even wear comfortable clothes to most churches, because anything physically comfortable can’t possibly be spiritual!
There are two forms of gnosticism – Greek and Roman. Both consider the physical world evil, but they deal with it differently. For the Greek gnostic, they move heavily into asceticism, trying to kill off the natural. Fasting is big for the gnostic. Because it’s all about starving off the physical man in order to attain the spiritual. Money is obviously considered “evil” (Jesus never knocked money by the way, only the idolatry of it), so gnostics are often big on poverty. For centuries our Catholic brothers have even taken vows of poverty! And who is the guy that all Christians agree to hate? The prosperity preaching televangelist of course, because we still think of prosperity as being evil.
Then there’s sex. What an area of confusion for the church! Ever since the early church, it’s been taught that sex is sinful and that our bodies are dirty. It’s okay to procreate in marriage – just don’t enjoy it too much! Hence the age old “vow of celibacy” and a centuries’ old misconstruction of Paul’s teachings on singleness being better than marriage.
And another physical world pleasure is alcohol – another gift from God that gets demonized. The list goes on: music, dancing, etc. Physical world gifts that the Greek gnostic rejects as sinful.
On the other hand, the Roman version of gnosticism also views the material world as intrinsically evil – but the Roman gnostic deals with it differently. Rather than taking the ascetic route of fasting and self-denial, the Roman gnostic figures “There’s nothing we can do about it anyway … so let’s have an orgy!” The Roman gnostic turns to licentiousness and overindulgence as he figures his escape from the “evil world” is impossible.
The fact is that God gives us natural world pleasures as a gift to be received with thanksgiving! The Jewish mindset has always understood this (when’s the last time you saw a Jewish brother taking a vow of poverty?). But the key is that we filter these pleasures through the Word! God gives us guidelines on earthly delights not because He is anti-pleasure, but because He is actually pro-party! He says to enjoy alcohol, but only in moderation (it’s no fun becoming an alcoholic, ending up in the gutter, losing your job and family … that’s no party). He says to enjoy sex in a monogamous relationship between a man and woman (a life of “hit it and quit it” relationships does not produce the fulfilling life that Hollywood and hip hop suggest). Gnosticism has duped us into thinking the scriptures are anti-fun. Anti-earth. Anti-life. But in reality, the New Testament moral guidelines have always been about enhancing and sustaining our joy! They are about directing us into the full, satisfying abundant life God has always intended for us in this world and the next!
Untangling the spell of gnosticism and addressing the incarnational life became the focus of my next book: Money. Sex. Beer. God. A Biblical Companion to the Happy Life.
More Beef to Come …
I have no doubt that we will continue to make waves in the days to come. Not that I’ve ever really intended to be a divine troublemaker. It just sort of happens.
There are many who quite honestly love the attention of stirring controversy and causing offense. Offense will happen as a byproduct of proclaiming the positive truth of the Gospel. But never something we should pursue in itself. Many are indeed called to be reformers, but they often devolve into schismatics. If we are not motivated by love and a genuine desire for the maturity and growth of others, bitterness can easily taint our voice. Shock and awe is often needed to wake people up – and Jesus used edgy language and introduced radically challenging, even confusing concepts. But it was all in an effort to liberate humanity. He never criticized anyone He wasn’t willing to die for.
A couple years ago I counted more than 500 people I had been forced to block on one social media platform alone! I have been the subject of relentless misunderstanding and rejection over the years – countless video exposés, derogatory sermons, excommunications and even entire books written to denounce me. Not saying I’ve always had every theological duck in a row. But I’ve caught as much persecution for our fun and irreverent style as the actual content of my teaching! The offensive fun is merely a manifestation of our glorious liberty in the Gospel. People are still angry over jokes I made in 2007!
But I abide by a general principle to never get on the defensive. Nevertheless if anyone has a reason for a chip on his shoulder - a distaste for mother church - it should be me! But I’ve learned that we have a choice to either take things personally or allow ourselves to grow in humility and compassion. To remain teachable and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
A willingness to kill the sacred cow does not mean we take nothing as sacred. In these days, it seems everything is being put on the chopping block. The inspiration of scripture. Evangelicalism. Charismatic Christianity as a whole. Many who are burned out on right-wing Fox News conservatism just figure they’ll switch ships to left-wing CNN liberalism. But liberty is never found in an “ism,” and I have never been afraid to offend people on the left and the right simultaneously. It is wisdom to neither write off nor to fully embrace every trend and movement in its entirety. We need Catholics and Presbyterians – but neither has a corner on the truth. Truth is a Person. One of the reasons we’ve been misunderstood over the years is because we draw from many diverse streams of the church, yet refuse to align solely with just one of them. We don’t belong to one camp. But we also can’t demonize entire segments of the Body just because they are mixed up.
I have long predicted that the next sacred cow headed to the barbecue will be the actual “grace movement!” Many who are not grounded in the scripture or appreciative of the operations of the Spirit are prone to devolve into endless spirals of intellectual deconstruction, criticism and ambiguous relativism. Much of what is called the “grace movement” is just a massive social media complaint session spiraling toward athiesm. I’m not saying “grace” is problematic of course! Nor in saying there’s a problem in “the camp” do I align with the very lemon suckers who equate the grace message with a “license to sin” (a common foil used to label us as “hypergrace”). This grace train is far more hyperactive than we could imagine – we have not begun to search out the riches of this infinite honey pot!
Grace isn’t the problem. It’s the bitterness that pulls away our Christocentric focus that’s the problem. Along with the trappings of compartmentalizing God.
The sacred cow I speak of is not grace itself. In fact Grace is not a doctrine He is a Person. Living. Moving. Breathing. Refusing to be caged up in some neutered little box. Some time ago I was in a foreign country for an event where a fellow had set up a resource table on which he had translated dozens of “grace preachers” into his native language. He was packaging a “grace network” and quite literally was wearing a “grace” T-shirt that he also sold at the table. I could tell that this poor fellow was going to be offended 15 minutes into my first sermon by the “grace message” I was about to preach. Over the years several folks have even asked me to “start a grace network” that they could join! Just join the Gospel! Why do we look for safety in masses and popular trends? The grace of God cannot be cellophane wrapped, marketed and sold as a product made palatable to the masses. But people thrive on security in numbers. A Democratic or Republican system. A Pentecostal or Lutheran church. And now with social media, the trend is to be on the “cutting edge” by bashing stuff all the time. It has become high-fashion to deconstruct, question and incessantly bitch at the church in the guise of “enlightenment” on Facebook and Twitter. In the name of “grace” the only common bond among many is a shared angst. Having been disenfranchised by religious structures, some make it their sole intent to discredit the Bible, the preeminence of Jesus Christ and thus get tossed about by every wind and wave of doctrine on the news feed that day (whether good or bad). They lose the plot in following the trend of “negating.” It has the appearance of bravery – but you’re not going against the flow when everyone else is going against the flow. Often the “radical” voices of reform sound bold, but they are really cowing to the approval of a few other “fellow radicals” to whose approval they are hopelessly addicted.
Karl Barth said the mark of a prophet is to be radically contradictory to the existing system. Then as soon as the “new thing” he endorses becomes the popular trend, he knocks the knees out from under the very thing he built! God is looking for original voices. Not echoes. Feast on Him. Enjoy what He’s done. And don’t cower to the majority report when you know the truth is unpopular. There is a lot of glory on being a free person! And yes, there is a place for negating the evils of religion. But that can never be our ultimate goal. Holiness is not the absence of sin; it is the presence of God.