Category Archives: Credo

A Fitting Salvation

July 2018 Credo

10 In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering’ (Hebrews 2:10, NIV 1984)

The writer to the Hebrews uses a unique word — ‘fitting’ — to describe the salvation that has been brought to his church congregation (and to us). The Greek word eprepen (‘it was fitting’) covers a certain semantic range, but the meanings all centre on the notion of the suitability or propriety of an action or decision.

So in what way is our salvation, which involves the incarnation of Jesus Christ and his suffering, ‘fitting’?

Here in Hebrews, at least, our salvation is fitting given the theme of identification which runs through this chapter. If Jesus is to be the great forerunner of what humanity was meant to be as God intended (Heb. 2:8–9), then it is fitting that Jesus identifies with humanity. ‘11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family’, Heb. 2:11 reminds us. Of course, as Heb. 2:14–15 goes on to show, Jesus’ identification is not one of capitulation to the same forces of death and the devil that held us in slavery, but it is precisely the opposite: a victory.

The language of fittingness is similarly seen in the great church father Athanasius. In On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius argues for the fittingness of God’s salvation based on the connection between creation and the renewal of creation.

Because it is the Word that brought about creation (including humanity), Athanasius argues that it is entirely fitting that the ‘the renewal of creation [is] the work of the self-same Word that made it at the beginning’ (§1.4; 4.2–4).

To be sure, the need for renewal is brought about by man’s own fault and rebellion. Having turned away from God who is the supreme being, we are ‘everlastingly bereft … of being’, with death and corruption now as our lot (§4.5). God’s goodness would not allow man to remain in this state of corruption (§6). Thus, the Word of God, which at the beginning made everything out of nothing, should come to bring ‘the corruptible to incorruption’ (§7.4–5).

The above, Athanasius stresses, is a fitting action, because ‘being Word of the Father, … He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father’ (§7.5). And that is what the Word does — takes on a body of similar nature as ours, gives it to death in the place of all as an offering to the Father, in the process undoing the law (involving the ruin of mankind) and turning mankind towards incorruption again (§8.4).

The idea of the fittingness of God’s salvation is picked up again and expounded in Anselm’s classic work, Cur Deus Homo. Anselm differs from Athanasius in framing his discussion around the concept of a debt payment or recompense for sin instead of a renewal of creation. Notwithstanding the difference, he shares with Athanasius the conviction that only a perfect God-man can fittingly undertake the task of salvation.

Cur Deus Homo can be seen as one long substantial answer that Anselm gives to the central question raised by his interlocutor, Boso: ‘Given that God is omnipotent, by what necessity and reason did he assume the lowliness and weakness of human nature in order to restore human nature?’ (I.1)

Anselm’s answer centres on the notion of sin and that which is involved in making recompense for sin. If every rational creature ought to subject his or her will to God, sin is nothing other than the failure to render obedience that one owes to God, resulting in a dishonouring of God (I.11). For God to leave sin unpunished would be to leave sin in an unordered state (I.12, 13). That cannot be the outcome given the character of God.

To further compound the problem, Anselm adds that the recompense must be proportionate to the sin (I.20, 21). This means that even if mankind — were we able to — could honour God by fearing, loving and obeying him, that would count only as repayment to God for what we owed him in the first place if we had not sinned, and not as payment for the debt which we owe for having sinned (I.20). Specifically, this recompense (for having sinned) must be ‘something greater than everything other than God’. Effectively, this translates to the fact that only God can make this recompense (II.6).

The logic culminates in Anselm’s conclusion that it is therefore only fitting that a perfect God-man make this recompense, for it is one that only mankind owes and that only God can make (II.6, 7). That is what Jesus does. By laying down his own life for the honour of God, Jesus — as one of true humanity — pays on behalf of sinful humanity the recompense owed to God. Because there is no sin in Jesus, his death is neither obligated of him nor reckoned as his debt before God (II.11), thus Jesus’ death truly counts as the recompense needed.

To complete the triple A-list of theologians, I mention very briefly Aquinas. Aquinas in the Summa Theologica addresses this question ‘Whether it was fitting that God should become incarnate?’ at the head of all the questions he treats in considering the incarnation (ST III, q. 1, a. 1). His refreshing answer comes in the form of leveraging on the idea of divine goodness. Since the essence of goodness is to communicate itself to others, so it is fitting that this divine goodness is communicated in the best possible way to the creature; that best possible way being seen in the incarnation.

Taken together, four different perspectives are presented as to why our salvation involving the incarnation and suffering of our Lord is a fitting salvation. That the one who is to be humanity’s forerunner should fully identify with humanity (Hebrews), that the one who created is the one who would renew creation (Athanasius), that only a perfect God-man can pay the debt that mankind owes to God (Anselm), that divine goodness should be communicated to the creature (Aquinas), all provide us fitting reasons to praise our Heavenly Father for his grace bestowed upon us.

O what a fitting salvation!

Rev Dr Edmund Fong is currently an Associate Minister in Adam Road Presbyterian Church. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Systematic Theology on the theology of the great German theologian Karl Barth. Happily married to Mei and blessed with 3 children, Edmund enjoys watching movies and running when he’s not found either reading a good book or writing his dissertation.

Religion and Magic

July 2018 Credo

One of the most fascinating figures in Acts is Simon Magus, who made his appearance in Acts 8, where Luke gives an account of the founding of the church in Samaria. This enigmatic figure so enthralled the ancient world that his name is found even in the Gnostic texts, which tell extravagant and historically dubious tales about him.

According to Luke, when Simon saw that the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, ‘he offered them money, saying: “Give me this power also, so that anyone whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit’. Apart from the fact that Simon thought that the power of the Spirit could be monetised, and therefore bought and sold, he also believed that it is a force that can be transferred from one person to another.

This has led some to argue that Simon thought that the power the apostles displayed was no different from that of the master sorcerer. The figure of Simon Magus therefore raises questions about the troubling relationship between religion – especially Christianity – and magic.

In their insightful study entitled, Anthropology of Religion, Magic and Witchcraft Rebecca and Philip Stein define magic as the methods that ‘somehow interface with the supernatural and by which people can bring about particular outcomes’. Sir James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, describes magic as a primitive form of technology.

Although magic is profoundly distinct from religion, the two have sometimes been wedded together in a syncretistic mix, as many sociological and anthropological studies have shown. One clear example is the blending of Christianity and voodoo in Haiti.

Although evangelical Christians in Haiti have condemned this unholy marriage, evangelicalism in the West – especially in America – is not spared from similar toxic miscegenations.

Both Edward Tyler and James Frazer maintain that magic has to do with belief in impersonal forces. As a form of ‘technology’, magic seeks to harness the occult forces and channel them in such a way that the goals of the magician are served.

We find the same idea embedded in the concept of faith promoted by the teachers associated with the Word of Faith movement. Thus, Kenneth Hagin – the alleged founder of this heresy – could instruct his followers to ‘Have faith in your faith’.

Comparing spiritual laws with natural ones, Hagin writes: ‘Just as you get into contact with those natural laws or put them into practice they work for you. Over in the spiritual realm the same thing is true’. This means that faith, for Hagin, has nothing to do with God – it is reduced to a technique that will produce the desired results when properly employed.

Hagin could therefore conclude that with correct use of the technique even unbelievers would get the same results: ‘…I’d see unsaved people getting results. Then it dawned on me what the sinners were doing: they were cooperating with … the law of faith’.

Writing on Wiccan magic, Philip Stein describes how visualizations are often used by practitioners to awaken and concentrate power so that it can be ‘set to effect a particular goal …’

In his 1902 book, The History and Power of Mind (published by Occult Book Concern) Richard Ingalese provides arguably the clearest insight into the power of mental visualization when he writes: ‘If you desire success, social position, any spiritual, mental or physical thing, it can be gained by simply creating and holding the picture in your mind’. ‘The constant or frequent vibration which your thought causes sets the Universal Consciousness surrounding you and your picture into action’, Ingalese explains.

Accompanying the creative energies that come with visualisation is the power of positive confession, a technique used by magicians and Word of Faith proponents alike. This idea is nicely summarised by Essek William Kenyon – whom some regard as the true founder of the Word of Faith movement – who boldly declared: ‘What I confess, I possess’.

In New Thought Metaphysics, both visualisation and positive confession work on the principle of the ‘law of attraction’, which is a form of mental magnetism. Mind-power, according to proponents, is the most potent energy force in the universe, which when properly directed can bring about circumstances and realities that previously did not exist.

When this idea is ‘christened’ by faith teachers like Kenneth Copeland and Creflo Dollar, the concept of ‘creative faith’ is invented. We are created in the image of the Creator God. Thus, so the argument goes, we too have the power to create by our faith-filled thoughts and words.

The historian of metaphysics Catherine Albanese describes this as mental magic (as opposed to material magic) because it uses vision, imagination, and words believing that external events could be controlled by thoughts and words.

Through the influences of theosophists like Helena Blasvatsky (1831-1891) and Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907) and New Thought advocates like Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866), such practises have long taken root in esoteric sects and cults like the Swedenborgians and Christian Science.

They have also made their way into heretical movements associated with evangelical-charismatic Christianity in America such as like Latter Rain, Health and Wealth Teaching and the New Apostolic Reformation.

Syncretism is always a real and present danger in Christianity. Paul warned the Colossian Christians about this danger in a letter written almost two millennia ago (Colossians 2:8-14).

That warning has to be taken just as seriously by Christians in the twenty-first century who have to contend with a plethora of diverse and enticing expressions of religiosity and spirituality. A Christian who is not grounded in Scriptures and the fundamental tents of the Church could, like Simon Magus, very easily confuse magic (which has to do with harnessing occult power for selfish ends) with true religion (which has to do with glorifying God through humble obedience to Jesus Christ).


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

The Paradox of Discipleship

June 2018 Credo

Luke 14:25-35

An Odd Conclusion …

Sandwiched between two parables (the Parable of the Great Banquet, 14:15-24, and the Parable of the Lost Sheep, 15:1-7) in Luke 14-15 is a passage on the requirements of discipleship (14:25-35).  Within this passage, there are two parables on a tower builder and a king (14:28-32), followed by the third cost of discipleship, the requirement of renunciation of possessions (14:33).  The fact that Luke 14:33 begins with “so then” or “so therefore” (Greek houtos oun) establishes it as the conclusion to the two parables.  At first glance, this conclusion seems at odds with the main thrust of the 2 parables, as we shall soon see.

The structure of Luke 14:25-35 seems straightforward:

  • Setting: Some crowds traveling with Jesus (14:25)
  • A pair of statements on discipleship: One on hating the family, another on cross-bearing (14:26-27)
  • A pair of parables: One on tower building, another on waging war (14:28-32)
  • A third/concluding statement on discipleship: Renunciation of possessions (14:33)
  • A new/concluding development: Warning about saltiness (14:34-35a)
  • A final appeal: Invitation to listen (14:35b)

Focusing our attention on the pair of parables, we find the key emphasis of Jesus’ teaching as the importance of careful assessment before committing to or starting a project; failure to do so would be disastrous.  The tower builder must assess both the cost of building a tower and whether he has the means to complete it before embarking on the project; else he faces the prospect of not only an uncompleted tower but also the shame of ridicule if he fails to finish building the tower.  A king going to wage war against another must also consider his army’s capability, especially in the face of obvious numerical disadvantage, and seek terms of peace if defeat is the foreseeable result; else the consequences would be equally disastrous.

With the emphasis on carefully assessing the cost and one’s resources and capability before committing to a project, the obvious way to conclude the two parables in relation to discipleship would be: “So therefore, think carefully!  Count the cost of discipleship, before you commit yourself to following me!”  Instead Luke 14:33 concludes with a paradoxical third requirement of discipleship: “So then, all of you who do not renounce (literally “bid farewell”) to all your possessions is not able to be my disciple.”  How is giving up one’s possessions in Luke 14:33 related to the theme of careful consideration in 14:28-32?

Or is the conclusion that odd? : Relating Renunciation with Careful Consideration

New Testament scholar, François Bovon, has helpfully identified two ways in which the third requirement of discipleship not only forms an excellent conclusion to the two parables but also as a powerful restatement of the three requirements of discipleship.

Throughout the Gospel of Luke, the author of Luke has sought to demonstrate the harmful power of and false confidence associated with wealth, be it in the beatitudes and the woes (Luke 6:20, 24), in the parable of the rich fool where the Lukan author juxtaposed riches for oneself with riches toward God, and in the passage about worry where he associated seeking God’s kingdom with the relinquishment of wealth (12:31-34).  Here again, the Lukan author records Jesus’ exhortation to potential disciples to renounce their possessions, in other words, wealth, as false securities in order to be able to consider carefully, like the tower builder and the king assessing their resources and capabilities, before deciding whether to commit themselves to be his followers.  Truly, this is such an important decision that failing to do so would lead to disastrous consequences.

Second, the use of the phrase “he is not able” (Greek ou dunatai) to be my disciple, which can also be translated as “he has no power”, throughout the passage (14:26, 27, 33) in association with the requirements for discipleship comes to a powerful conclusion in 14:33 – the power to be Jesus’ disciple requires the relinquishment of power, be it the power of money, of life or of relationships.  Discipleship cannot be simply understood as leaving one’s family, having only one priority, cross-bearing or leaving everything; it is only through the renouncement of power that one receives divine power to be a disciple of Jesus.

A Final Conclusion

Thus, the power to think and consider carefully before committing oneself to discipleship, to the one and only security that comes with following Jesus, requires the giving up of all possessions, the surrendering of all false securities.  The paradoxical nature of discipleship also means that one only receives the divine power to be Jesus’ disciple through the renouncement of power.

Perhaps it is also appropriate for this passage to be located between the Parable of the Great Banquet and the Parable of the Prodigal Son where the unworthy and powerless (the crippled, the blind, the lame and the prodigal son) are the ones who are ready to receive the transforming and powerful gift of God’s grace.

Rev Dr James Lim teaches subjects related to New Testament at Trinity Theological College. He is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Singapore and serves as an associate minister in Ang Mo Kio Presbyterian Church.


Theological Liberalism as Heresy

June 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: What is your assessment of liberal theology?

The roots of modern liberal theology can be traced to the great intellectual and cultural movement in 18th century Europe called the Enlightenment. Although the Enlightenment is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon, in the main it signals man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage, that is, his inability to think without the guidance of another. As Immanuel Kant has so famously put it, the motto of the Enlightenment is Sapere Aude! (‘Dare to Know’!) – ‘Have courage to use your own understanding’.

In presenting man as the supreme authority, the Enlightenment jettisons all traditional sources of authority, including, of course, the Church and her sacred Scriptures. As Richard Pierard notes, ‘All beliefs must pass the tests of reason and experience, and one’s mind must be open to new facts and truth, regardless of where they may originate’.

Accompanying the Enlightenment is a new approach to interpreting the Bible that uses the ‘science’ of historical research called ‘historical criticism’. Liberal Bible scholars and theologians accept the findings of the ‘historical critical school’ that suggest that the biblical texts are not conveyors of divine revelation, but are instead time-bound accounts of the ancient people of Israel and the early Christians.

In the hands of the liberal theologians, the Bible is no longer regarded as God’s infallible Word, inspired by his Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16). Instead, the Bible is merely seen as the work of its human authors and editors who belonged to an age centuries removed from ours, and who are in every way limited by their times. The stories in the Bible must be regarded as myths and fables, purposed to inspire piety and morality.

In allowing reason to usurp the authority of the Bible, liberalism has introduced such mutilating distortions to the basic tenets of the Christian faith concerning God, Jesus Christ, salvation, eschatology that what emerges as a result can no longer be said to be orthodox Christianity. In departing so radically from the ‘faith that was once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude 1:3), theological liberalism must be regarded as heresy.

Take the liberal revisions to the doctrine of God. In his magisterial work, History of Dogma (7 volumes, published between 1894-99), Adolf von Harnack argued that the orthodox Christianity presented in the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed is the ‘creation of the Hellenic spirit on the soil of the Gospel’ and therefore a profound aberration of the simple religion of Jesus. The Church, Harnack insists, must re-discover the ‘kernel’ of Christianity by removing the ‘husks’, that is, the forms that it has been given as a result of the metaphysical speculations of her theologians.

Following Harnack, liberal theologians have regarded the doctrine of the Trinity as merely symbolic expressions of the Church’s experience of God, devoid of any ontological truth.

Or take liberalism’s understanding of Christ and salvation. In his book, On Religion, Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799), Friedrich D. Schleiermacher – who has been accorded the accolade of being the father of modern (read, liberal) theology – describes Jesus not as the incarnation of God’s Word, but as an archetypal man. Jesus was a man who has achieved perfect ‘God-consciousness’ (that is, total dependence on God). He serves as an example that we all must emulate.

Following Schleiermacher’s lead, the late Anglican theologian John Macquarrie also maintained that Jesus is different from other humans only in degree and not in kind. In other words, for Macquarrie, the incarnation must be understood metaphorically, not literally.

Consequently, Macquarrie’s Jesus is hardly different from what he calls the other ‘saviour figures’ like Krishna, Confucius and Buddha. In his highly influential book, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (1990), Macquarrie argues that like Jesus, all these other saviour figures are also ‘mediators of grace’ and ‘emissaries of holy Being’. Like Jesus, they have also ‘given themselves up to the service of a divine reality, who might work in them and through them for the lifting up of all creatures upon earth’.

It should not surprise us that theological liberals have downplayed the seriousness of sin by defining it, not as a depravity that is so comprehensive that if human beings were left to their own devises, they would not be able to rescue themselves from destruction, but as merely a glitch in our relationship with God.

For Schleiermacher, then, ‘redemption’ has to do with a restored relationship with God that can be achieved by emulating Jesus who enjoys pre-eminent God-consciousness and an intimate relationship with God. Schleiermacher – and the liberals who followed him – has very little to say about vicarious atonement, forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

The Lutheran theologian Eugene Klug is surely rightly when he asserts that ‘The true horror of liberalism is evident precisely at the point where it denies Christ’s unique role as Saviour of mankind through his vicarious suffering and death for men’s sins’.

Liberal theology wants to present Jesus as a remarkable man, a pious follower of God par excellence – but not as the incarnate Son of God – to the so-called cultural despisers of Christianity. In so doing, they have seriously distorted what Scripture says about him. As Klug is right to point out, ‘The gospels do not consist in pious embellishments of what Jesus’ followers thought about him, fancifully enhanced by miracles and a fabricated report of his resurrection’. Rather, ‘these gospels consist in the revelation of God, recorded by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, for faith’s acceptance’.

Liberalism is the bastardization of the Christian Faith – to borrow the expression by the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. It is the mutilation, corruption and perversion of orthodox Christianity.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

James and John (Packer and Wesley on Romans 7)

May 2018 Credo

Some time ago, I read a book on the writings of J. I. Packer. It is Packer on the Christian Life: Knowing God in Christ, Walking by the Spirit  by Sam Storms (Crossway, 2015).

Packer is a writer who has influenced me significantly in my growth as a theologian, pastor and Christian. His deep roots in Anglican theology and liturgy, Puritan spiritual theology, and the evangelical emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the necessity to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ have been greatly helpful to the 20th and 21st century church.

His logical consistency as a systematic theologian, godly way of life and the steadiness of views held over a long period with conviction, together with his wide-ranging writings on the many practical issues related to Christian living have been most useful, and ought to be celebrated by us, especially as Packer has now lost his eyesight and is quite old – he turned 90 on 22 July 2016.

My men’s group was richly blessed when we studied his book Rediscovering Holiness some years ago. In our discussions I mentioned Packer’s interpretation of Romans 7 – that it is a description of Paul’s own personal experience as a saint struggling to overcome sinfulness in his quest to be freed from its influence.

This is in line with the view of St Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and so on. Packer’s views are discussed in chapter 6 and in the appendix of Packer on the Christian Life. If you have a copy of Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit, check out the appendix; it also discusses Rom 7.

Packer is a realist emphasising sin’s stubborn stickiness to the soul, that it takes a lifelong battle against it in our hearts to achieve Christlikeness and holiness. Because of his views, he seems to dismiss Wesleyan teaching on Christian perfection. He rightly understands Wesley’s definition of perfection as not including moral perfection or perfection in making decisions or discernment.

For Wesley, perfection has to do with loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbours as ourselves. This is an imperative that Wesley argued can be achieved at any given time by the actions of God’s grace through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

For Wesley, this was a growing and dynamic perfection, in the sense that on the basis of our growing knowledge of God and His ways, and the availability of God’s grace, our love for God can also grow in growing perfection, like the way a balloon can grow as a perfect sphere in different degrees.

Wesley’s take on Romans 7 is contrary to that of Packer’s. He follows the Church Fathers before Augustine, and the Arminian position (Jacob Arminius) that Rom 7 describes the experience of a man before conversion. No doubt, one’s theological position affects one interpretation of such difficult biblical texts. One has to fit one’s interpretation to the overall scheme of one’s theological system.

Packer is a Calvinist while Wesley was an Arminian. Wesley emphasised the need to strive towards Christian perfection and victory over sin by cooperating with the grace of God. There was no place for spiritual laziness, procrastination and defeatism in his view. He thus preached often from 1 John 3:6 to emphasise that the Christian must stop deliberately continuing in sin.

On his part, Packer was wary of Wesleyan holiness movements and Keswick teaching on the higher life, that they offered perfection too easily without taking into account the fierce and lifelong battle with our sinfulness. The danger of spiritual daydreams is that they tend to deny the actual reality. This may be seen in the songs we sing in church which speak about loving God or surrendering to Him in ways that do not reflect reality and make us hypocrites or liars.

So who is right, Wesley or Packer?

How can I as a Wesleyan pastor respond to Packer’s view of Rom 7? I think one way to understand this is to establish some facts. Packer is not one for spiritual sloth, and emphasises the importance of spiritual effort and seriousness in pursuing holiness – hence his problems with Keswick teaching which he considers too quietistic and passive for his liking. Wesley who also considered the Moravians later in his life as too quietistic, would agree with Packer on this count.

At the same time, though Wesley urged Christians to seek perfection because God is perfect (Mt 5:48) and holiness because God is holy (1 Pet 1:16), he was only too aware of how difficult this can be. He himself assessed his own life regularly and found faults. In his own sermons he spoke against the lack of seriousness found among some Methodists, and did not hesitate to expel them temporarily from the Methodist societies until they showed serious repentance.

Thus if you assess both Wesley and Packer you may find that there is greater agreement between them than is superficially noted. We need to recognise that Scripture speaks to all conditions and possibilities.

Where there is easy triumphalism and the stubbornness and the devastating effects of sin is not taken seriously, then we need to turn to Packer’s interpretation of Rom 7, that the fierce struggle with inner sin begins with Christian conversion and is the experience of the saint who learns to hate sin and seeks to be free from it.

Where there is sad defeatism that sin will always have the upper hand and that we will never overcome it, or when this idea turns to inner permission and an excuse to remain in sin, bringing with it spiritual sloth, then we need to turn to Wesley’s emphasis on how we need to grow in Christlikeness and “participate in the divine nature” by making every effort to grow from faith to love (2 Peter 1:3-11).

Notice how we need both correctives, lest we face the danger of pushing either position too far, ending in less than helpful Christian deviations. Both Packer and Wesley will vehemently reject such deviations.

I wonder how Wesley and Packer would meet in heaven. I suspect that they would find much agreement (Packer sharing Wesley’s emphasis on holiness and Wesley sharing Packer’s realism), and that the perceived gap between them would narrow to a thin line across which they can heartily shake their hands in mutual respect and brotherly affection

Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.

The Return of Christ

May 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: How should we understand the second coming of Christ?

In the Apostles’ Creed, the Church declares that the risen and ascended Christ will come to ‘judge the living and the dead’. The return of Christ at the end of time to judge the world and to bring the kingdom of God to consummation is clearly taught in Scripture and firmly grounded in the theological and liturgical traditions of the Church.

But Christ’s second coming has also been a subject of much speculation and controversy throughout the history of the Church. Christians of every stripe have discussed the time of Christ’s return as well as the manner of the parousia (Greek for ‘presence’ or ‘arrival’).

Space does not allow us to examine the many passages in the New Testament that refer to the return of the Lord Jesus. But here are a few passages that will hopefully show that this is a major theme in the Gospels as well as in the other books of the NT.

In his great Oliver Discourse, Jesus in discussing the end times speaks of his return thus: ‘Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory’ (Matthew 24:30).

Paul, in his letter to the Christians at Thessalonica, testifies that ‘The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God’ (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul assures them that God will ‘also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on that day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Corinthians 1:7).

The apostle Paul dealt with this topic in many of his letters (1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; 2:1, 8; 1 Timothy 6:14; 2 Timothy 4:1, 8 and Titus 2:13). And in the rest of the NT, references of the second Advent of Christ can be found in Hebrews 9:28; James 5:7-8; 1 Peter 1:7, 13; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28, and of course in Revelation.

Throughout the history of the Church, attempts were made intermittently to predict the date of Christ’s return. One of the most spectacular examples is the medieval theologian and monk, Joachim of Fiore, who asserted in 1190 that the Antichrist had already come. Joachim prophesied that Christ would return before 1205 to begin his millennial rule.

A number of passages in the NT may give the impression that the return of Christ is imminent when their contexts are ignored. For example, Jesus told his apostles as he sent them on their mission that ‘when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes’ (Matthew 10:23).

A superficial reading of this passage suggests that the parousia will take place within the lifetimes of Jesus’ disciples. This passage, however, must be read alongside what Matthew has to say about mission to the Gentiles, which will take place at the end of the age (Matthew 21:43; 24:14).

Seen in this way, the passage in fact urges its readers to look beyond the immediate mission of Jesus’ disciples to that of the Church. As the NT scholar G. D. Ladd has rightly argued, properly understood, Matthew 10:23 ‘says no more than the mission of Jesus’ disciples to Israel will last until the coming of the Son of Man’.

A close reading of the NT would reveal that it scrupulously discourages any speculation about the date and time of the return of Christ. In his Olivet Discourse, Jesus said: ‘But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only’ (Matthew 24:36).

Writing to the Christians at Thessalonica who are disposed to think that the parousia would take place in their lifetimes, Paul stresses that ‘that day will surprise you like a thief’ (1 Thessalonians 5:4). Peter echoes this point when he writes: ‘But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar …’ (2 Peter 3:10).

Just as the timing of Christ’s return is a mystery, so is the manner of the Second Advent. Although the NT employs numerous imageries to depict the return of Christ, it unequivocally teaches that the parousia will be personal and physical. This is clearly indicated in passages such as Acts 1:11 where we are told that Jesus will return in the same manner as he had ascended into heaven.

Matthew also depicts the glorious return of Christ as visible, clear and unmistakable: ‘Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and glory’ (24:30).

In his book Is Jesus Coming Soon? Ralph Martin succinctly summarises the NT testimony concerning the manner of Christ’s return thus: ‘Christ’s coming will be personal, clearly manifest, unmistakable, and visible to all. It will not be hidden or invisibly “spiritual”; this will be the incarnate Son coming, not an invisible working of the Holy Spirit’.

The NT does not address the question how it is possible for Christ’s return to be physical (which means that it is confined to a particular location) and yet be visible to the whole world.

The purpose of the return of Christ is to judge the whole world (‘the living and the dead’, as the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds put it) and to bring God’s kingdom to consummation. Concerning this final judgement, the brilliant Roman Catholic theologian of the previous century, Romano Guardini, writes:

Men and things will appear in their true light, as they are, and every deception will vanish. The inner and most hidden nature, both good and evil, will appear plainly, with all trappings stripped away. Every being will attain to what is the truth.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.


Can We be Sure of our Election?

April 2018 Credo

Arguably, John Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination could be regarded as one of the most controversial dogmas in the Protestant Reformation in 16th Century Europe. Critics say that Calvin’s teaching made God into a tyrant who chose some to be saved and others to be damned.

Moreover, the 1559 edition of the Institutes of Christian Religion–Calvin’s final version following twenty-four years of revisions to this work–seem to reflect his concluding position on double predestination. Apparently, it only lends fuel to the fire of criticism against him.

The doctrine of double predestination, however, is more complex and multifaceted than its critics care to acknowledge. Moreover, Calvin’s position on the subject must be seen from a variety of situations beyond just the didactic context of the Institutes. Indeed, elsewhere through his commentaries and sermons, Calvin presents an assuring note to all who feared that God might just have appointed them to be damned rather than redeemed.

Hence, in this brief article, I wish to highlight from the less cited commentary on 1 Peter and the 1559 Institutes itself the other side of the picture in which Calvin sought to assure those who were gripped by fear about their eternal destiny. In this, I wish to demonstrate that a distinguishing hallmark in Calvin’s doctrine of election was the assurance he brings concerning the prospect of being chosen by God.

First off, we affirm Calvin’s clarification that our election “depends on nothing else but on God alone, for he of his own free will has chosen us.” – Comm. 1 Peter. This ought to engender in us humility and gratitude since we realize that apart from God’s election by grace, we would otherwise all perish in our sin.

But Calvin would go further to assure those who may waver in their confidence. He adds that “…all who are admitted by faith into the church, are to be counted as the elect; for God thus separates them from the world, which is a sign of election.” – Comm.1 Peter.

When you participate, by faith, in the confessions of a church, you may be counted as the elect.

That is not to say that it is our faith that precedes our election. It is, in fact, the reverse. Election precedes faith. That is to say, faith is a fruit of our election.

After all, Calvin’s definition of faith presents a picture of the triune God engendering faith in us: “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of God’s given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Inst 3.2.7)

In it, we notice that the Holy Spirit seeks to reveal the promise given in Christ to our minds and seal it upon our hearts. In the process, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ (Inst. 3.1.1), engenders faith in us, and helps us to recognize in God a benevolent Father rather than a fearsome Judge (Inst 3.11.1).

Not only so, the Holy Spirit works to sanctify us and leads us on to “cultivate blamelessness and purity of life” (3.11.1).

When we discover that God is treating us as his adopted children and disciplining us for our sanctification, we know inwardly that God has indeed elected us. Listen to Calvin’s assuring word here: “As far then as they proved that they were regenerated by the Spirit of God, so far did he deem them to be the elect of God, for God does not sanctify any but those whom he has previously elected.” – Comm. 1 Pet.

Our experience of being sanctified by the Holy Spirit bears testimony to this effect. Hear again Calvin’s reasoning: “notice the effect, by which he sets forth and bears witness to our election. That effect is the sanctification of the Spirit, even effectual calling, when faith is added to the outward preaching of the gospel, which faith is begotten by the inward operation of the Spirit.” – Comm. 1 Pet.

Further, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit spurs us to a life of obedience to Christ. This manner of living would then be indicative that we are in fact elected by God. Notice how Calvin reasons about this in the Institutes: “the object of regeneration … is to manifest in the life of believers a harmony and agreement between God’s righteousness and their obedience, and thus confirm the adoption that they have received as sons [Gal. 4:5; cf. II Peter 1:10]” (3.6.1).

Again, it is not a blameless life that earns our adoption, but one that is the fruit of the certainty of our election. In reality, the heart’s knowledge that the Holy Spirit is working tirelessly for our sanctification spurs us on to let this doctrine permeate every aspect of our living.  “For, [as Calvin adds], it is a doctrine not of the tongue but of life. It is not apprehended by the understanding and memory alone, as other disciplines are, but it is received only when it possesses the whole soul, and finds a seat and resting place in the inmost affection of the heart” (3.6.4).

“[It] must enter our heart and pass into our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us” (3.6.4).

When this is happening, we receive in our hearts the Holy Spirit’s assurance that we are indeed the elect of God.

This then is the other side of Calvin’s word on double predestination. It is a word that assures and affirms.

Rev Jimmy Tan is lecturer of Pastoral and Practical Theology at Trinity Theological College and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in Singapore.

Evidence for Jesus

April 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: Are there historical evidences that Jesus Christ lived and died?

In his article entitled ‘The Quest for the Mythical Jesus’, Robert Price discusses ‘the series of realizations about methodology and evidence that eventually led me to embrace the Christ Myth Theory’. The Professor of Biblical Criticism at the Council for Secular Humanism’s Centre for Inquiry Institute argues that even if Jesus really did exist, he is lost in the sands of time. ‘There may once have been an historical Jesus’, he writes, ‘but for us there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth’.

I believe that in advancing the Christ Myth Theory, Robert Price has deliberately refused to consider the overwhelming evidence for the historical Jesus.

In this brief article, I turn to extra-biblical sources to look for evidences for Jesus. I argue that in the works of non-Christian authors of the 1st and 2nd centuries there can be found sufficient evidence of the existence of the man Jesus. I believe that these Jewish and pagan sources are reliable precisely because their authors were antagonistic to Jesus and his early followers. The clear references to Jesus or the Christ in their writings conclusively shows that the historical Jesus is not the figment of the imagination of the early Christians or a myth – as Price has argued. I will also explain why I think that on the basis of the historical evidence it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus was crucified, and that he rose from the dead.

The Historicity of Jesus

The first non-Christian author that provided evidence for the existence of Jesus is Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who was born in AD 37 (or 38) and died in AD 97. Born into a priestly family, Josephus became a Pharisee at the age of nineteen. After the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, Josephus moved to Rome, where he became the court historian for the Emperor Vespasian.

In his work entitled, Antiquities of the Jews, published around AD 90-95, Josephus gave an account of John the Baptist that is in complete agreement with the record in the Gospel of John. In Book 18, Chapter Five, Josephus writes:

‘Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment for what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism …’

The accuracy of Josephus’ account of John the Baptist suggests that what he said about Jesus in the same document must also be reliable. This especially applies to the Arabic version of Antiquities, whose authenticity is endorsed by reputed scholars such as Professor Schlomo Pines of the Hebrew University. This is what Josephus wrote concerning Jesus in Antiquities 18:3:

‘At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and (he) was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he appeared to them three days after his resurrection and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders’.

The second reference to Jesus is found in Antiquities 20:9, where Josephus describes the trial and sentencing of James and other disciples:

‘After the death of the procurator Festus, when Albinius was about to succeed him, the high-priest Ananius considered it a favourable opportunity to assemble the Sanhedrin. He therefore caused James the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and several others, to appear before this hastily assembled council, and pronounced upon them the sentence of death by stoning’.

The evidence is so overwhelming that Professor Pines could write:

‘In fact, as far as probabilities go, no believing Christian could have such a neutral text; for him the only significant point about it could have been its attesting the historical evidence of Jesus. But the fact is that until modern times this particular hare (i.e. claiming Jesus is a hoax) was never started. Even the most bitter opponents of Christianity never expressed any doubt as to Jesus having really lived’.

The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus

We turn now to inquire if there are convincing evidence from non-Christian sources for the crucifixion and death of Jesus. All the canonical Gospels report the torture and execution of Jesus. However, there are Gnostic Gospels that claim that this did not happen. For example, in the First Apocalypse of James, Jesus is depicted as consoling James with these words: ‘Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And this people has done me no harm’.

In the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, Jesus made it clear that he did not die and that it was someone else – Simon of Cyrene – who died in his place:

‘I did not die in reality, but in appearance … in error and blindness …[they] saw me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder. I was rejoicing in the height over all … And I was laughing at their ignorance’.

Islam makes a similar claim: that Jesus was not crucified, and therefore did not die on the cross. In the Quran, we read:

They denied the truth and uttered a monstrous falsehood against Mary. They declared: “We have put to death the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the apostle of God”. They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did.

Those that disagreed about him were in doubt concerning him; they knew nothing about him that was not sheer conjecture; they did not slay him for certain (4:157-158).

Are there extra-biblical sources, penned by pagan authors that corroborated with the accounts in the canonical Gospels about Jesus’ death? The answer is Yes.

In his historical account entitled, Annals (written at about 115 AD), Cornelius Tactitus (ca. 55-201 AD) the Roman historian offers this account of the great fire in Rome during the reign of Nero:

‘Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular’.

Tacitus wrote about Christus (which is Greek for Christ) who suffered ‘the extreme penalty’ (death) at the hands of Pontius Pilatus during the reign of Tiberius. He said that the ‘mischievous superstition’ (i.e., Christianity) was checked for a while (after Jesus’ death), but broke out again.

The second century Greek satirist, Lucian, also wrote about the death of Jesus in his work entitled, The Death of Peregrine. ‘The Christians’, Lucian asserts, ‘worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account’. The Syrian author, Mara Bar-Serapion similarly alluded to the execution and death of Jesus in a second century manuscript:

‘What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgement for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished’.

I have already cited the passages from Antiquities by Josephus that explicitly reported that ‘Pilate condemned him [Jesus] to be crucified and to die’ (18:3). The first century writer Thallus even corroborated with the Gospel account of the darkness that covered the sky at Jesus’ crucifixion, but attributed it to the eclipse of the sun. Although Thallus’ work is no longer extant, the third century scholar Julius Africanus referred to it, rejecting Thallus’ naturalistic explanation of the phenomenon: ‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun – unreasonably, as it seems to me’.

Perhaps the best evidence of the death of Jesus is from the Talmud. In its earliest period of compilation known as the Tannaitic period (70-200 AD), we have this remarkable passage about Jesus’ death:

On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf”. But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.

‘Hanging’ is synonymous to crucifixion (see Galatians 3:13, where crucifixion is described as hanging on a tree). There is therefore plenty of extra-biblical material that testified to the crucifixion and death of Jesus.


We come finally to the resurrection of Christ. Since the second century, there have been a number of sceptics who tried to refute the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Recently, Richard Cevantis Carrier, who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, has tried to debunk the historicity of the resurrection in his books and articles. Carrier sought to do this by reviving the old hallucination theory and dressing it up in a new garb. The origin of this hypothesis can be traced to 19th century writers such as David Strauss and Ernest Renan.

According to this theory, the disciples of Jesus were so emotionally attached to their Master that after his death, they hallucinated about him, believing that he has risen from the dead. Carrier writes:

I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence … is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another … In the ancient world, to experience supernatural manifestations of ghosts, gods, and wonders was not only accepted but encouraged.

Theologians like Wolfhart Pannenberg, Christian apologists like William Lane Craig and historians like Gary Habermas have provided compelling arguments for the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. These scholars have marshalled the historical evidence to show that it is not unreasonable to conclude that the resurrection of Christ really took place.

Space does not allow me to develop their arguments in detail. I will simply summarise them, placing special emphasis on the historical facts on which they are established.

The Empty Tomb

The first historical fact is that the tomb in which the body of Jesus was placed was found to be empty by the women on the Sunday following the crucifixion.

Now, the reliability of the story of the burial of Jesus was never in question. This was because of the involvement of Joseph of Arimethea, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Almost every scholar agrees that since a member of the ruling class was instrumental in the burial of Jesus, the narrative is unlikely to be fictitious. Furthermore, because it was Joseph who provided the tomb, it is unlikely that the women went to the wrong tomb on that first Easter morning. If they had, the mistake could have been easily corrected and the right tomb located.

The Jewish authorities could also have easily exhumed the body of Jesus from the tomb to prove once and for all that the claims of Jesus’ disciples about his resurrection are false. Instead, they concocted the story that the disciples have stolen the body (Matthew 28:11-25). In the fifth century, an anti-Christian document called the Toledoth Jesu revived the theory that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body. But the Toledoth Jesu is deemed too late and unworthy as a source. Be that as it may, the stolen body hypothesis shows that the tomb was indeed empty.

In addition, we must also note that the disciples of Jesus did not go to some far away place to preach about Christ’s resurrection. Instead, they began preaching in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus had died and was buried. As the Lutheran scholar Paul Althaus has rightly pointed out, proclamation about the resurrected Christ ‘could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb has not been established as a fact for all concerned’.

Resurrection Appearances and Witnesses

The second historical fact related to the resurrection of Jesus is the numerous witnesses who saw the risen Lord. The earliest account of the resurrection comes from the pen of the Apostle Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Here, Paul lists a very wide range of eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ. Some of these witnesses saw him individually, while others encountered the risen Christ as a group. They saw him at different times and under different circumstances.

The indication that most of the eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ were still alive is significant. Scholars have understood this statement as an open-ended invitation for the Corinthians to inquire for themselves whether this is true, since many who witnessed the risen Christ were still with them. Mention of James, the brother of Jesus, is also significant. This is because James did not believe in Jesus during his earthly ministry (John 7:2-9). But after Jesus’ resurrection, James did not only become a follower of Christ, but also an apostle who exercised leadership in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). Paul recognised James’ apostleship in Galatians 1:19.

The Gospel accounts of the appearances of the resurrected Christ are also diverse. There were multiple, independent accounts of these appearances. According to William Lane Craig:

‘This is one of the most important marks of historicity. The appearance to Peter is independently attested by Luke, and the appearance to the Twelve by Luke and John. We also have independent witness to Galilean appearances in Mark, Matthew and John, as well as to the women in Matthew and John’.

What about the theory forwarded by scholars like Richard Carrier that the disciples of Jesus thought that they had seen the resurrected Christ, but in fact were merely hallucinating? Gary Habermas has roundly refuted this hypothesis in fine paper entitled, ‘Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: The Recent Revival of Hallucination Theories’. Again space does not allow a more thorough treatment. I provide a simple summary.

There are several reasons why the hallucination hypothesis is untenable.

Firstly, most psychologists dispute the reality of group or mass hallucinations. Rather, they maintain that hallucinations are private, individual events. But Paul said that more than five hundred encountered the risen Christ as one time. It is highly unlikely that these five hundred witnesses had hallucinated.

Secondly, the wide variety of times and places that Jesus appeared, together with the fact that the witnesses come from diverse backgrounds, is a huge obstacle to the hallucination hypothesis. As Habermas explains:

Men and women, hard-headed and soft-hearted alike, all believing that they saw Jesus, both indoors and outdoors, by itself provides an insurmountable barrier for hallucinations. The odds that each person would be in precisely the proper frame of mind to experience a hallucination, even individually, decrease exponentially.

Thirdly, studies have shown that hallucinations generally do not transform lives. However, even critics have noted the radical transformation of Jesus’ disciples. The same band of followers, who appeared fearful when their Master was crucified, suddenly became bold witnesses who were willing to die for their faith, after claiming to have seen their risen Lord.

There are also other important points that should be noted. Why did the ‘hallucinations’ suddenly stop after 40 days? Why did it not spread wider, to other believers or disciples? The hallucination hypothesis appears unable to stand under the weight of such evidence and arguments.


The overwhelming extra-biblical evidence for Jesus shows that the New Testament accounts are extremely reliable. The NT’s account of the historical Jesus is corroborated by numerous pagan texts. But the NT has much more to say about this man than the fact that he existed. It testifies that the man Jesus is the incarnation of the eternal Word of God (John 1:1-14), the Saviour and Lord of the universe he has brought into being (Colossians 1:15-17). It tells us that Jesus Christ is the way, and the truth and the life (John 14:6) and that ‘whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

What is the Gospel?

March 2018 Credo

Our Common Understanding of the Gospel

The key message of the Christian faith is the “gospel” (or good news). This inevitably leads us to the question, “What is this good news about?”

For many Christians in Singapore, our answer is likely to proceed along the following lines: “The gospel is clear and simple. Because of sin, we human beings are guilty in God’s sight and are destined for the punishment of hell. Out of his grace, God has sent his Son Jesus Christ to our world. Jesus died on the cross, where he paid the penalty for our sin and also transferred to us his righteousness. All those who acknowledge Jesus as their Lord and Saviour obtain the salvation won by him at the cross, and our spirits have a place in heaven when we die. At God’s appointed time, Jesus will come again, destroy our evil world and pluck the remaining Christians up with him into heaven.”

Problems with this Understanding

This “clear and simple” understanding of the gospel contains many valid truths. It is, however, also inadequate and problematic. This is so for many reasons; we mention three in this short article.

A. Strong Gnostic Influence

There is, firstly, the strong influence of Gnostic ideas in this account of the gospel. Gnosticism is a system of belief which draws a stark distinction between material existence, which is considered evil, and spiritual existence, which is good.

Gnosticism teaches that it was a good deity who created the spirit component of human beings, while an evil demiurge brought into being material existence, in which our spirits were trapped. Salvation, for the Gnostics, consisted of gaining the correct knowledge to enable our spirits to escape the prison of our material existence and return to the pure spiritual realm of heaven.

Gnostic versions of Christianity presented a major threat to the true Christian faith in the early centuries of the Church. Although they eventually faded away, the influence of Gnosticism on Christianity is still evident.

This is seen in our tendency to “over-spiritualise” the gospel. As in our “clear and simple” account, we often present the gospel as promising salvation only for the “spirit” part of human beings, with everything else in the world (i.e. the material bits) going into oblivion at God’s final judgement.

This fits perfectly with the Gnostic narrative, since the destruction of this material world represents the defeat of the demiurge and his evil schemes. The Christian faith, however, has always affirmed the one true God as the Creator of all that exist, both spiritual and material (which are both good). When we teach the final destruction of creation (save the redeemed human spirits), we unwittingly promote the notion that our God has suffered an ultimate defeat at the hands of evil.

B. Failure to Deal Comprehensively with Sin

The second thing wrong with our “clear and simple” gospel account is that it does not deal comprehensively with the problem of sin. It is standard Christian teaching that sin has two key aspects: It is the wrong we human creatures freely choose to do, leading to our guilt and need for forgiveness. It is also the power over our lives which significantly influences our decisions and behaviour. We are (what the Bible calls) “slaves to sin” and stand in need of redemption.

The gospel account presented above addresses only the first aspect of sin. It tells us how the work of Jesus on the cross leads to us being cleansed of our guilt and receiving God’s forgiveness. But it says almost nothing about the second aspect of sin.

This kind of imbalance in the treatment of sin has led to a version of Christianity in our day which questions why anything matters once we have been forgiven of our sin. Why is there a need continually to confess our sins to God and to one another? Why do we even strive to live in a manner pleasing to God, if all of our sins (past, present and future) have already been forgiven as a result of the cross? These questions arise out of our obsession with the problem of our guilt, with little corresponding attention paid to the predicament of our slavery.

C. Lack of Guidance for the Here and Now

The third shortcoming of our “gospel” summary is related to the first two. Because of its Gnostic overtones and inadequate treatment of sin, it does not give much guidance for our life in the here and now.

Our guilt has been remitted, and our spirits have a place in heaven. All these are well and good, but what (on earth) do we do while we are still here on earth? Are things like Church membership and attendance, participating in the sacraments and prayer, embarking on social action and creation care, understanding and reforming our cultures and societies, undertaking our studies, work and recreation of any relevance to the gospel at all?

If we are true to our “gospel” summary, all we can say is that these commitments might at best be useful, if they help sustain us spiritually until we get to heaven. Otherwise, frankly, they are a total waste of time, as they have little bearing on the ultimate aim of getting our spirits to heaven.

It is no surprise that our common understanding of the gospel has led to an individualistic and consumeristic form of Christianity, where everything is measured according to its usefulness in helping to enrich our “spiritual lives”. It has also resulted in a severely privatised and truncated Christianity, which has nothing meaningful to say to the major concerns of our age, beyond the message to individuals that “your spirit can also get to heaven if you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour”.

What Then is the Gospel?

The summary set out above does contain key truths of the Christian faith: We are guilty of sin, God’s grace has indeed led to a “wondrous exchange” taking place on the cross, we need to embrace Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour and Jesus will indeed come again to consummate God’s plan of salvation. But truths presented in a partial way, with other key aspects neglected or misrepresented, can sometimes be more dangerous than outright heresy, since the errors of the latter are far more easily detected.

If this common presentation of the gospel is inadequate and problematic, how then should we understand the good news of Christianity? I will end with this tantalising question, in the hope that it will push us to ask, to discuss, to study and to reflect, to the end that we discover (to our never-ending amazement) how deep, wide, rich, all-encompassing, powerful and utterly wonderful the gospel truly is.

Dr Leow Theng Huat teaches theology and Church history at Trinity Theological College. He is a local preacher in the Methodist Church in Singapore, and a member of Wesley Methodist Church. 

Growing Old in Christ

March 2018 Credo

Reader’s Question: How should Christians understand and respond to aging? What resources does the Christian faith have to enable Christians to age well?

In recent years, there has been much discussion in the media here about what has sometimes been anxiously described as the ‘silver tsunami’.

By 2030, it is estimated that one in five people in Singapore will be over 60. And with the third-highest life expectancy in the world (currently at 82.7 years), the government has been pro-active in introducing a slew of initiatives to cater to the diverse needs of our ageing population.

The Bible has much to say about the elderly.

There are passages that make the closest connection between living an upright life and longevity. For example, Proverbs 16:31 clearly depicts longevity as the reward of the righteous when it declares that ‘Grey hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life’. And Psalm 92:12-14 promises that even in old age the righteous will continue to flourish and bear fruit.

But the Bible also captures vividly the anxieties that accompany ageing which even faithful believers experience. Thus, in Psalm 71 the psalmist prays movingly: ‘In you, O Lord, I take refuge … Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent’ (vv1, 9).

Christian reflection on what it means to grow old must surely also be guided by the realism of the Bible and acknowledge the ambiguities that accompany ageing. It must avoid the two opposing and extreme approaches in modern culture to ageing that have brought about untold confusion and frustration.

The first extreme is ‘ageism’, that mindset and perspective that sees ageing only in a negative light, that is, in terms of what it is not: not young, not productively employed, not energetic, not independent, and not fully engaged with the present.

Our therapeutic culture also presents ageing as something that must be strenuously forestalled (if that were possible) or cleverly camouflaged (if postponement fails). This anti-ageing message is spread through various means, not least in commercials that promise to remove the signs of ageing either by cosmetics or laser therapy.

Modern culture also glorifies the young, the powerful and the energetic. This subtly but powerfully conditions society to think of older people in generally negative and distorting ways – as useless, unattractive and burdensome.

The other extreme is the virulent reaction against ageism that seeks to demolish the harmful stereotypes it conjures by ignoring the real limitations that come with ageing. We see this in the portrayals of older people performing heroic and incredible feats that would put to shame people half their age, like doing chin-ups, jet skiing and skydiving.

Such an approach is as distorting and harmful as the myth it seeks to debunk.

As G.D. Bouma and B. R. Dixon have perceptively pointed out, the message that it sends ‘show no more tolerance for the intractable vicissitudes of old age than the older stereotypes; older people are now (or should be) healthy, sexually very active, engaged, productive and self-reliant – in other words, young’.

A Christian theology and spirituality of ageing must avoid the Scylla of ageism and the Charybdis of triumphalism: it must neither deny the limitations and suffering that older people experience nor denigrate the elderly and dismiss the contributions they can make in the community.

Following the delicate balance of Scripture, a Christian perspective to ageing must acknowledge and embrace its inherent ambiguities. As Canon Stephen Ames explains, ‘The ambiguity of ageing is the tension between old age as a time of fruition and decay, and fulfilment and loss’.

Christian writers have pointed out that the elderly have specific spiritual concerns and needs. They include questions relating to the meaning of life, anxieties about being self-sufficient, a sense of being vulnerable and issues pertaining to isolation and death.

To this list, Stanley Hauerwas adds the threat of ‘dementia, deafness, blindness, arthritis, helplessness, even repulsiveness; and worst of all the loneliness of outliving one’s contemporaries’.

The Church must be aware of the needs of her elderly members and offer special ministry and support that would enable them to flourish despite these anxieties.

While old age is often accompanied by suffering, it is important to remember that being old has to do with much more than suffering. The elderly in Christ must continue to acknowledge that the life he possesses is a gift from God, which by God’s grace still holds many surprises and possibilities. It is a life that can and should be lived for the glory of God.

This brings us to the heart of the matter: ageing and discipleship. As Christians grow old, they remain called to follow Christ and to be his witnesses in the Church and in the world.

As theologian M. Theresa Lysaught puts it, the elderly ‘remain called equally to the practices of the corporal and spiritual ministry, to sharing the faith with the young, and to the promotion of social justice’.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, who have traversed far along the road of obedience, the elderly are able to contribute to the life of the Church in ways that both complement and supplement the contributions of younger Christians.

The elderly bring with them their rich historical memories. They bring with them experience and wisdom. And by their exemplary virtue, the godly elderly can be both model and inspiration to many Christians, encouraging them to pursue godliness and spurring them to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25).

The elderly who live for the glory of Christ will discover that the vicissitudes of old age – ill health and frailty – can never rob them of the peace and joy that comes from God. They will again and again discover the wonderful truth in the words of the 4th century bishop and theologian, Ambrose: ‘Every age is perfect in Christ. Every age is full of God’.

A Christian theology and spirituality of ageing must explore the depths of Ambrose’s vision. Nancy Baxter is surely right when she writes that ‘The church’s theological task is to understand the gift of life in old age in the light of the whole story, remembered and celebrated through all seasons of Christian living’.

The Church must therefore never see the elderly in a negative light: as passive members, unable to contribute much and are mostly in need of the ministrations of others. Instead the Church must be a community that affirms and celebrates the call and vocation of the elderly, welcoming them and giving thanks to God for their presence, their gifts and their participation.

The Church must recognise that without its elderly members she is incomplete and thus in many ways profoundly impoverished.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.