There are no two words in the English language more incongruous than “celebrity” and “pastor,” but as we all know, these are very incongruous times. One of the latest red carpet-trotting “celebrity pastors,” Rich Wilkerson, was just profiled here on TheBlaze.
Pastor Rich is a young guy who dresses in skinny pants and deep v-neck tees, poses for photo ops, takes Instagram selfies with Justin Bieber, and shies away from “controversial” subjects like gay marriage and abortion, because, as he explains, he wants people to like him. Pastor Rich brags of being “great friends” with Kanye West, and even officiated his wedding a few years ago.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with befriending a sinner — we’re all sinners, to be sure — but maybe a pastor ought to exercise some prudence. It might be wise to avoid creating scandal among your flock by publicly hobnobbing with a blasphemous egomaniac who claims to be God and made his fortune rapping about getting high and having sex with hookers. But Pastor Rich is super cool, and super cool people are supposed to hang out with famous rappers. Remember, a good Christian must always be awesome, fun, and trendy, no matter what. As Jesus proclaimed, “The only rule in life is have fun, don’t be boring, and dress cute wherever you go.”
Sorry I think that was actually Paris Hilton. It can be easy to get those two confused, depending on which church you attend.
The preview for his new reality show (of course) intersperses clips of Pastor Rich cavorting on the beach with his scantily clad wife with footage of him shouting self-help cliches – “Nothing will be impossible!.. We’re gonna do life together!” – to a mosh pit of cheering fans at a rock festival. Er, I mean, a congregation of Christian disciples at “church.” At one point, Rich reveals to the viewing audience his insightful pastoral motto: “I don’t think people are interested in a bunch of religion — like, yo, tell me what I can and can’t do — but I think people are interested in a relationship with a higher power. “
In the article, he explains that the Gospel does not demand ”behavior modification.” Because, yo, we shouldn’t have to, like, modify our behavior or, like, you know, do stuff. Just remember that old Christian saying, yo: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”
Sorry I think that’s actually the official slogan of Satanism. Again, some churches make it easy to conflate the two.
Unfortunately, the heresy Rich represents is not in the least unique to him. After all, Rich is just like any of the countless Christian apostates who profess a particularly comfortable, stylish, hip, fun perversion of the faith.
These days, churches increasingly cater to Christians who hate Christianity but still want to be “spiritual.” These people desire the feeling of fulfillment and purpose found in devout religious practice without any of the actual practice, nor for that matter the doctrines, teachings, constraints, discipline, obedience, observance, challenges, commandments, suffering, or sacrifice. They want the appearance of the dish but none of the ingredients whatsoever. What they end up with, then, is a meal similar to the kind my 2-year-old daughter serves after she’s “made dinner” in her Fisher-Price kitchenette: a colorful plate filled with plastic fruit and imagination.
I think the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” (or “a higher power,” as Pastor Rich so fashionably put it) has been especially useful to the practitioners of Plastic Fruit Christianity. Now don’t get me wrong, although the saying appears nowhere in the Bible, there is a deep and important truth to it. Yes we should desire an intimate connection with Our Lord, we should know that He loves us each individually, and we should recognize and give thanks that He died for all of our sins. We should develop a “personal relationship” in that we should be affected and changed personally by Christ. We should come, personally, to believe in Him and follow Him.
Our Lord himself is “personal” in the sense that he is not detached from the world. He is not a Lord who sits off at a distance, nor is He some kind of pantheistic, amorphous blob of energy composed of all of the elements of the universe, like a Kabbalist or Buddhist or Joel Osteen might talk about.
So, yes, Jesus is “personal” and we must come to know Him, love Him, and serve Him personally. But if we’re using “personal” in this context, it’s redundant. Of course we have to love and follow Jesus personally. Of course loving Jesus isn’t a cumulative task where each member of the world contributes a percentage. We must, individually and personally, believe in Christ and obey his commandments. Definitely. This is self-evident.
But this “personal relationship with Jesus” thing is very often applied like Pastor Rich and other trendy Christians apply it: as a means to strip the faith of its moral demands and reduce it down to anemic ambiguity. When many people speak of a Personal Jesus, what they really desire is an Adjustable Jesus. They want to be disciples on their own terms; to calibrate their religion to a more relaxing, luxurious setting; to throw out the difficult, challenging aspects of Belief and put something customized and convenient in its place. When these folks say “my personal relationship with Jesus,” all that really registers is the “my.”
Their “personal relationship with Jesus” is only individualistic, rejecting the imperative communal dimension of faith (Ephesians 4:16). They keep it contained only in their heart, but they ignore the necessity of the church, which is Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:27). They render their faith dormant, but it should be a light for the Earth (Acts 13:47). I am not suggesting you should have no “personal relationship with Jesus,” I’m just saying that nearly every Christian who wishes to justify their dormant, hidden, individualistic, private, convenient, customized, contained “faith”; nearly every Christian who wants to find an excuse not to go to church; nearly every Christian who wants to pretend their faith should have no bearing on their lifestyle or their sexual habits; nearly every Christian who wishes to minimize the moral characteristic of their religion, utilizes that catchphrase in doing so.
In any case, the real direct heresy proposed by Wilkerson and myriad others is that the Gospel has no message of “behavior modification,” and that Christianity should be a Faith that appeals to people who “don’t want to be told what they can and can’t do.” This is by far the most popular modern revision of Christian doctrine, and it couldn’t be further removed from the Gospel itself.
It’s true that the Bible is not merely an instruction manual like some kind of spiritual IKEA assembly guide. And it’s true that we can’t just do good things, acquire Salvation Tokens, and cash them in for a ticket to heaven. Clearly, it doesn’t work that way. We cannot earn salvation through our own merits, and whoever says otherwise is repeating a retro heresy called Pelagianism, which was condemned about 1600 years ago.
We are saved by God’s grace, not by giving to charity and holding the door for strangers. Salvation is a gift given by God and ultimately accepted through faith. We cannot bargain for or purchase it. Christ already paid the price on the cross. But if we are to truly accept the gift of salvation, then we must have faith, and our faith must be living, vibrant, active, and functional. It cannot be just an emotion felt or a refrain repeated. I think this is the part many of these trendy, comfortable churches miss.
Why do the Ten Commandments exist if we don’t have to follow them? What about the Beatitudes? Why does Jesus instruct us to help the poor and be loyal to our spouses and embrace suffering and endure persecution? Why did Jesus tell the adulteress to “go and sin no more”? These are all behaviors — why are they mentioned if our actions are irrelevant? Was God wasting His breath? Or have we just decided that God is silly and senile and we needn’t do the things He tells us specifically to do?
In John 15, Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command.” Just a few sentences later, in that same chapter, He goes into a long speech explaining that we will be hated — hated, that’s a promise — by the world. What He’s saying very clearly is that our friendship with Him, if it is authentic, automatically means we will be seen as enemies by most of the world. To drive the point home, James makes it explicit: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
There are many enemies of God within the Christian ranks, because Christians so often want to decide the parameters for their friendship with Jesus. They reject His commandments but say His name and believe they are still saved. And they are tragically mistaken.
Think of it this way: if we look at a bridge and say we have faith that it is stable, yet we refuse to actually walk across it, how true can our faith in that bridge actually be?
Comfortable Christians would tell us that as long as we recognize the existence of the bridge, we do not have to walk across to live out and act upon our faith in it. The walking is beside the point, they say. But Jesus said something entirely different. Jesus said, repeatedly, “come follow me.”
Can we claim to have faith in a Lord we will not follow? Can we categorically reject his dictates about being chaste, humble, observant, etc., and still categorically accept him as the Son of God? We can sin and still be Christians, yes, but can we universally reject the very concept of moral law and still retain the title? Can we conclusively determine that Christ’s instructions do not functionally matter and still call ourselves disciples? Can we declare our unconditional belief in Jesus, while altogether disbelieving the actionable substance of Scripture? No. No. No. No. No.
“Believing in Christ” has to go beyond mere acknowledgment of a historical and spiritual reality. Like we’re reminded in James, believing is nothing special on its own. ”Even the demons” do that much.
Consider it another way: if say I “believe in” my wife, I don’t mean that I simply believe she is real – although I do believe she is real, having investigated the matter — I mean I trust and love her. My “personal relationship with my wife” would be rather sick and lifeless if it was fueled only by my continued affirmation of her existence. On the contrary, my personal relationship must be active, purposeful, and sacrificial. In a word, it must be loving, and to love someone — especially your wife, and more especially your Lord — means to serve them, not just to acknowledge a certain fact or feel a certain way about them.
As Paul declared, “If I have faith enough to move mountains but I don’t have love, I am nothing.” I don’t think he was referring to a purely emotional or mental experience when he said this.
These are scary ideas, I admit. I understand why the cowardly, weak, and selfish would prefer to contrive a new faith where nobody is “told what to do”; where the only demand on a Christian is that he verbally or mentally confirm the reality of a “higher power.” It is downright terrifying to think that our actions mean something, I know. And I haven’t even gotten to the scariest verses yet. I mean, just look at this one from Corinthians:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
For pastors who wish to be admired and adored, railing against sexual immorality and greed won’t do. And then there’s this from Matthew:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers!’
And then there’s this, from Mark, possibly the scariest verse in the entire text:
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to Hell, to the unquenchable fire.
According to Jesus, this is how desperate we should be to conform ourselves to the will of God. This is how extreme and severe our faith should be. This is what it means to accept Jesus. It’s not that we earn a spot in Heaven by following His will, it’s that we accept our spot in Heaven by following His will. If we will not reject evil, if we do not actually desire an eternity with God, if we believe in Jesus but believe more in our sin, then we cannot come Home, no matter what we say or what ideas we have in our heads. The Prodigal Son was welcomed home only because he turned from his wicked ways and made the journey back.
I think CS Lews, as usual, put it best:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it.
It is a detestable heresy, this modern “it doesn’t matter what we do” garbage. I truly hate it because I see how it is so truly tempting, particularly in our culture. I hate it because it tricks people into thinking they have faith in Jesus when, in fact, their faith lies only in an invisible friend they made up in their heads.
An inactive faith is dead not because we have failed to sufficiently prove it, but because there is fundamentally no such thing as an inactive faith, just as there is no such thing as inactive love or inactive charity or inactive hope or inactive courage. Our faith is spoken through our words and our deeds. Otherwise it’s not faith. It’s just a feeling.
Jesus never promised that faith would be comfortable, much less fashionable or fun. So if you’re sitting around right now and thinking this “being a Christian” thing is pretty relaxing and easy, you’re doing it wrong. Yes — doing. And if your church is putting these ideas in your head, rebuke the pastor and run away as fast as you can. That place is a pagan temple, not a church.