24 February 2009

Christianity and paganism contrasted in three vignettes

by Dan Phillips

(Some additional reflections on this post)

Vignette one: Centuries ago, when I was a brand-new Christian, I tried to witness to a friend in high school. He listened openly enough to such as I had to say. At the end, he had to confess:

"I just keep trying to convince myself that accepting Jesus would make me a better writer... but I can't!"

I blinked. I hadn't said anything of the sort.

Vignette two: Some time after, I was in the back yard with some family. Something (I think it was a Frisbee) got stuck on the cliff-like hill beyond the fence. One of a couple of adult ladies present said:

"Wish it down, Dan!"

I honestly had no idea what she meant. I must have goggled a bit, because her sister said, "You mean, 'Pray it down.'"

"Yeah!" she agreed. "Pray it down!"

Vignette three: A bit over a year ago, I was trying to explain an excruciatingly hard decision I'd had to make to a loved one who is an unbeliever. I tried to explain it simply and straightforwardly. But she completely disagreed with me, and warned me I'd regret it in ten years.

Her concern was strictly pragmatic. It wouldn't work for me. It wouldn't make me happy. I'd feel sad about it. I shouldn't do it.

Bottom line: the difference between Christianity and paganism is the difference between serving God as God, and trying to be God.

To the dear lady in vignette three, that I would do something simply because I believed it would best serve Christ was inconceivable. Didn't it hurt me? Make me sad? Look bad? Risk alienating others? Then, for pity's sake, why do it?

To the friends in the first two vignettes, God was something to use to get what I want. Could He do that? Make my friend a better writer? Get my Frisbee down?

The pagan conceives of God as (at best) a commodity, a resource, a tool. If the pagan can make no use of Him — or, worse, if God gets in the way of his desires and plans — then God is to be cast off.

How do Christians respond?

Well, how we do respond and how we should respond are, sadly, not always the same thing.

We should respond by preaching the Gospel as it really is: the word of truth, the word of the transcendent Creator and Lord (1 Thessalonians 2:13). We should respond by preaching the Gospel of the imminent Kingdom of God and call the unbeliever to repentance in light of that truth (Matthew 4:17; Acts 17:30-31; 28:31). We should respond by preaching God up, and preaching man down (2 Corinthians 4:1-18). We should unveil the glorious, transcendent majesty of God. We should expose the pathetic, inexcusable, guilty, doomed vulnerability of man. We should set out God's terms of reconciliation, through Christ, because of His work on the Cross. We should call man to immediate and unconditional surrender, by repentant faith.

That's what we should do.

What the church does instead is to try to repackage God, as if he were yesterday's widget, and sell Him as useful. I wish I could say this is seldom done, but you'd know I was lying. I've seen books, I've heard sermons, I've seen ads that present God as the best way to get what we want, to achieve our dreams, and as the ultimate Enabler of our agendas.

This is the god of Balak, the god who can be manipulated into serving our desires. The god of paganism.

This is not the terror of Isaac (Genesis 31:42, 53), the holy and majestic and unspeakably ultimate God of the fathers, the prophets, or the apostles. It is not the God our Lord Jesus proclaimed, served, nor revealed.

God forbid we offer dying men such a miserable substitute — let alone cling to such a lie ourselves.

Dan Phillips's signature


Even So... said...

People are looking for a tool to use at their own discretion instead of being the tool itself used by God’s hand. It should be “conform to the mold”, not “use the tool”. When we are trying to find a tool, we are still the foreman.

pcraig said...

Can you say how you would now respond to people in each of the vignettes?

donsands said...

Great post. I love to hear these kinds of words. It's so true that the Gospel is for nice people, who need to be nicer; for lonely people, who need not be lonely any longer,etc. etc.

On my local "Christian" radio station WRBS, they share a gospel that says Jesus wants to have a relationship with you, He loves you, and if you are lonely come to Him, if you're not happy, He will make you happy. That is the heart of their gospel, and yet they will agree when you bring up the fear of God, sin, hell, and it would better to pluck your eye out than die in your sin. They agree when you discuss this with them, but they never talk about otherwise; I never hear them. So I shut them off, and simply listen to a secular station. (I do tune in for Alistair Begg, Sproul, and MacArthur though.)

Dr. Paul W. Foltz said...

A Most excellent post. We are God's tools, not God is our tool.

I don't use The Holy Spirit; He uses me as He sees fit.

We need to preach as dying mem to dying men, depending entirely upon God to use it to save or to hharden hearts as He wills.

Josh said...

Great post. If God could be manipulated, he wouldn't be God. Which is exactly why we are still able to and should pray big, bold prayers.

DJP said...

PCraig, even though I'd only been a Christian for a little while, the way the Lord saved me left the issues of conversion very clear. So to the best of my ability I did explain to my high school friend that you don't believe in Jesus to get Him to make you a success in something you want to do. You believe in Him because He's true, and because you need Him to save you.

But I don't think he got it, try as I might (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:3).

To the third, I'm not sure I'd even try to explain, as I did. I should have said that I believed Christ my Lord required that I do thus and such. My explanation wasn't totally different; I just wrongly thought the person could be made to see the sense of it. Wrong.

The second one was a silly, in-passing thing, and I don't remember if I said anything. Now, I might ask what she thought prayer was, and then try to bring the Word to bear.

Anonymous said...

Something else I've noticed is that non-Christians often times want God to validate their pride as well as be a tool to meet an objective.

For instance - if God loves everyone the same then his love for me isn't enough.

Just an observation.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

I think it's hard for pagans to grasp the idea that God sets the terms, and that they don't.

This is further exacerbated by well-intentioned pastors and Christians who say that God loves you unconditionally (without sufficient nuance and qualification).

And the word "unconditional" connotes the (mis)understanding that God doesn't set terms.

P.S. Anybody want to argue Lordship Salvation with John MacArthur or Phil Johnson?


John said...

As much as I liked the movie Facing the Giants, I believe that its message is one much like the one expressed in your post. "Serve God and He will give you / make you all that you've ever dreamed."

That seems to be the main message in popular contemporary Christianity. I don't like it.

stev0themarried said...

Thank-you for the blunt and encouraging truth.

Stefan said...

Isaiah 40:18-26.

Also, 1 Timothy 6:6-8.

Stefan said...

Okay, that was too prooftexty.

Who are we too liken Him—"who sits above the circle of the earth," "who stretches out the heavens like a curtain," and "who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothingness"—to a mere idol? (Isaiah)

Godliness is a means of gain, in a sense—not material gain, for this is "a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness"—but gain through "contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world." (1 Timothy)

Stefan said...

"Who are we too" ==> "Who are we to"

Stefan said...

And and yeah, Donsands:

I am becoming increasingly convicted that the "Gospel" message that appeals to man's sense of discontent or emptiness or meaninglessness or loneliness—that even these (which don't even fall into the realm of "health 'n' wealth," really) is what Jesus Christ came to solve—is not the "Gospel" at all (well, duh). I mean, yes, the solving of these is a natural outcome of rebirth in Christ, but that is not what the Gospel is about. Jesus Christ didn't come to give us a sense of self-fulfilment—he came to reconcile sinners to a just and merciful God!

If it's not about our unrighteousness and our need to put our faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ for He alone is righteous and the perfect atonement for our sins and the means of our reconciliation to God, then it's a "different Gospel."

(The nuance is in saying all this in love to a non-believer who thinks that mentioning sin is being judgemental and a means of coercing a person into believing something they don't believe. That's where the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit comes in....)

Christiant2.0 said...


Thanks for the post. I really have been blessed by reading and discussing things on this blog. Just wanted to say thanks.

No devils advocate.


Rick Frueh said...

" I wish I could say this is seldom done, but you'd know I was lying. I've seen books, I've heard sermons, I've seen ads that present God as the best way to get what we want, to achieve our dreams, and as the ultimate Enabler of our agendas."

In abundance. As I was planning on robbing a bank and killing the guard in New Jersey in 1974, I was injured in a street fight and confined to bed rest. I saw Billy Graham (1975 vintage) and heard the gospel and was saved in March of 1975. I bear a bodily disfurement from that fight which made me watch that program in my aunt's home (no clickers back then).

Do you think I ever regret being injured, and what does my disfigurement remind me of daily - the fight or the Redeemer!

Good post!

DJP said...

A sermon on how God wants you to have all your dreams would have been singularly ill-timed, wouldn't it?

donsands said...

"Jesus Christ didn't come to give us a sense of self-fulfilment—he came to reconcile sinners to a just and merciful God!"-Stefan

Why the Christian announcers on the radio don't speak within the realm of this truth I'll never know for sure.

Perhaps they don't really know the Gospel.

I remember hearing a caller speak to the radio DJ and say how he was feelling the power of God, and he went on and on about hearing and feeling the Spirit.
I called and said to the DJ, "That was a scary testimony. That person never said anything about Christ, nor the Gospel. He just talked about feeling God save him. He may not even be a Christian."

She said to me, "He is a wonderful and powerful Christian. He loves the Lord."

I said, "Then you know him?"

She said, "No, not really. But I can tell he is serving the Lord."

I thought, how amazing that she could say that. Seems like everybody is a Christian if they say they are, because they had spme sort of experience, and prayed for Jesus to come into their heart.

I suppose the reason we don't challenge more is that we are too timid, and afraid to ask the hard questions.

Anonymous said...

"No, not really. But I can tell he is serving the Lord." <-- donsands

Wow. That DJ or whoever they were was seriously deceived.

How on earth anyone's "sinner's prayer" combined with a life of worldly compromise and zero zeal for holiness or evangelism could possibly even remotely resemble God's salvation is mind-boggling.

Stefan said...

Rick: That's amazing!

Why am I reminded of Jacob limping away from his encounter with God at Peniel?

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

Sing-Along Steve: "How on earth anyone's "sinner's prayer" combined with a life of worldly compromise and zero zeal for holiness or evangelism could possibly even remotely resemble God's salvation is mind-boggling."

Well, I think partial responsibility must be borne by some preachers and/or authors.

Decisional Evangelism + Opposition to the tenets undergirding Lordship Salvation + A "Once-Saved-Always-Saved" doctrine promoted from the pulpit or understood as such from the pews will result in what you find "mind-boggling", Sing-Along Steve.

Rich said...

"I've seen books, I've heard sermons, I've seen ads that present God as the best way to get what we want, to achieve our dreams, and as the ultimate Enabler of our agendas."

Reminds me of this from Bart Campolo


"Of course, to believe in God the way I do is to change the rules of ministry, and especially of youth ministry. I still convince young people to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, but not because I’m afraid God will damn them to Hell if they don’t. On the contrary, I want kids’ to follow Jesus because I genuinely believe it’s a better life..."

And those words are by no means his most egregious errors...

Was I wrong to be the sole vote against having Bart Campolo deliver a sermon at my church the day after I will be forced to listen to him deliver a keynote speech to my denomination's annual gathering? Was that intolerant of me? Am I wrong to think that his kind of "gospel" just can't hold up under persecution and therfore cannot be equal to the True Gospel, which has universal application to all believers of every situation?

Thankyou Teampyro for all your posts, when I read them I don't feel so all alone, and I still get a healthy bit of conviction to stay the course and to correct my course where there is deviation.

EGC said...

No, Rich, I don't believe you were wrong. The "name it and claim it" magic god in a box theology must be opposed by all who really believe the Bible.

Josh & Jocelyn R. Plett said...

Long time reader, first time commenter.

It was well worth the read and truly hit home for a missionary in Madagascar who often finds himself doing exactly what your first two vignettes pointed out. A good reminder that we are here for God's glory alone and not personal fulfillment or gain, especially in the disguise of promoting or expanding OUR mission.


Stefan said...

I cited Isaiah and 1 Timothy, but how could we forget about Habakkuk!?

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
     nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
     and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
     and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
     I will take joy in the God of my salvation.


Are we going to say The Prayer of Habakkuk books in the "spirituality" section of bookstores any time soon?

Susan said...

Just two nights ago I was watching "Wheel of Fortune" on TV. This one contestant was having an incredible run--she won a trip to London, she kept spinning the wheel and got a wild card, the jackpot, and a chance to win $1,000,000 in the bonus round. When she got into the bonus round, Pat Sajak spoke with her loved ones who were there to support her, and her mother said (regarding the possible victorious outcome), "I believe that with Jesus anything is possible."

("Noooooooooooooo! Don't say that!" I exclaimed!)

Her daughter didn't win.

I hate to see people lose in game shows (especially when I know the answers!), but in a very strange sense, I'm kind of glad the girl didn't win, given her mother's comment, no matter how sincerely she believed it and no matter how true the statement actually was. Spoken in that context, it just doesn't paint the right picture of Jesus. Call me picky if you'd like --although my guess is that most of you out there would agree with my sentiment....

PuritanReformed said...


excellent post.

Hadassah said...

Amen and Amen!

NoLongerBlind said...

BTW, did you ever get that Frisbee down from the cliff?

The suspense is killin' me!

DJP said...

Some say
it's up there