Christ Our Everlasting Inheritance Part III of IV: Does Jesus “Work”?

Posted: August 26, 2008 by limabean03 in Christianity, Rob's Thoughts, Trinity Tidings, Uncategorized
Jesus...I knew he was good for something

Jesus hard at work

 Whether it be a new diet pill, a vacuum, a microwave, or even a religion, one of the things that we are culturally obsessed with is the answer to this question: “does it work?”  In many regards, thanks to the philosophical baggage of a system developed in the late 19th century called pragmatism, the answer to that question determines the truthfulness and validity of the object.  While not the father of pragmatism, surely one of its champions of belief, if not the champion is William James.  He writes:


“Pragmatism asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?”  –Pragmatism, 1907


The important thing to notice about this system is where it starts.  It does not start with truth, but rather starts with experience and experiment as a means of discovering truth.  While there is much to be said on this subject, I would like to hone in on the specific applications it has to Christianity and religious thought.  In the past much Western thought accepted certain tenets of Christianity as true and proceeded from there.  So, for example, in the past we might have said that God exists in Trinity.  He is Holy and both righteous and merciful.  Our response to this revealed (by God) and received (by the Church) truth might exhibit itself in certain behaviors such as moral restraint and religious devotion as a response to this truth.  However, under pragmatism, the system could be said to have been reversed.  Rather than start at received truth, we start in the “experience” and construct truth based off of our interpretation of our experience. 


It looks something like this: I am overweight.  I have tried to lose weight before and nothing has worked.  I begin to attend a church where they are teaching Biblical principles for losing weight.  The weight begins to fall off and I lose eighty pounds.  My experience teaches me that these Biblical principles are true because they work.  In other words, my experience has proven the truthfulness of the system.


While the system sounds good in theory, let me simply draw out a few quirks that pose a problem to this system for Christians. 

1.  “It works for me” is the standard of pragmatism and makes the individual the ultimate judge of what is true in his or her own life.  However the Scriptures teach that we are not necessarily the best judge of what “works” and what does not.  Consider Romans 1.32: “though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

2.  The Scriptures are clear that Christian truth is objective and universal.  Experience is subjective and individualistic.  Biblical principles for losing weight might actually help some people lose weight, but others it will not help.  Because for some people these Biblical principles will not help them lose weight their experience will teach them that the Bible must not be true because it didn’t work 

3.  Christian truth is enduring, experience is fleeting.  If we lure people into our churches on a “Jesus works” model, what will happen when he doesn’t “work” in one aspect of their lives?  He will cease to be true and they will go somewhere else. 



So what is our response to pragmatism?  We might say first of all that Jesus does “work”, but his work is not always perceptible in our lives neither is it always towards the end that we desire.  Consider this passage from Scripture:  “We despaired of life so that we might hope in him who raises the dead.”  If we were in St. Paul’s shoes, I doubt any of us would say that Jesus was “working” positively in our life.  But again, that is our perception.  It was an insight given to Paul by the Holy Spirit that allowed him to see the spiritual benefit of despairing of life.  Similarly, when we are suffering from chronic depression, or anxiety, addictions or illness, and we are not delivered from these things, it is very easy to become frustrated with Jesus because his work is not immediately apparent in our life.  But few would take the time to consider that the presence of any of the above, might actually be an indication of his work in our lives.  Martin Luther writes “God often inflicts us with the lesser evil to drive out the greater evil.”  His point being that God is working in our lives in often painful and imperceptible ways in order to drive out the greater evil of our sin.  So he does “work”, but not always in the way we want him to.   



The main flaw of pragmatism in the Church is that it is selling the benefits of Jesus but not Jesus himself.  This is what John Piper describes as “valuing the gifts above the giver” and in that respect it is no different than the prosperity Gospel, although it can be a bit more wholesome in its motivations.  So we might say, “believe in Jesus and he’ll fix your marriage.”  And the truth is, he just might.  But whether or not Jesus fixes your marriage does not make him any more or less true or valuable than he already is.  Whether your marriage fails or prospers can neither add or detract from his glory nor does either possibility make him any more or less true.  So what are we to gain from this? 



When we “sell” Jesus to non-Christians, our selling points could indeed include his work in our life, but the selling point must always be the person of Jesus Christ, sufficient in and of itself.  The Apostle Paul will write “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3.8).  It is true that through Christ we have salvation, everlasting life, freedom from sin, and sanctification.  But these are, at the end of the day gifts.  They are far surpassing gifts!  Wonderful gifts! But Paul’s point of Phil 3.8 is that knowing the giver of these gifts is the surpassing and sustaining joy of the Christian life.  With or without heaven, with or without freedom from sin, with or without sanctification, I would have been glad to know the person of Jesus Christ, who captivates and satisfies my heart.  And yet!  And yet! He is pleased to give me from the overflorw of his grace, mercy, and kindness eternal life, freedom from sin, and sanctification.



So we may conclude with this.  Do you and I know Christ in such a way, that simply knowing him is a sufficient joy to eclipse all other joys?  A sufficient benefit to eclipse all other benefits?  A sufficient inheritance to eclipse all other inheritances?  Even heaven itself?  To be honest, along with Paul, I say “not that I have already obtained this…” (Phil 3.12), but I also say “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3.12).  May you and I become a people of whom Christ is both our promised and desired inheritance.  






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