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Is Christmas a Celebration of Losing?

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"Article

When error comes, it always rides in on the wings of truth.[1]

Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), Premier of the former Soviet Union, described a time in the Communist republic’s history when a wave of petty theft was sweeping through the government-owned plants. To curtail the stealing, guards were placed at factory entrances to watch the laborers as they entered and departed. At the Leningrad timberworks, one of the guards spotted Pyotr Petrovich leaving the yard with a wheelbarrow filled with a bulky sack. A guard became dutifully suspicious.

    "Come on, Petrovich," said the guard. "What have you got there?"

    "Just sawdust and shavings," Petrovich replied.

    "Come on," the guard said, "I wasn’t born yesterday. Tip it out." Out it came-nothing but sawdust and shavings. So he was allowed to put it all back again and go home.

    The same thing happened every night all week, and the guard was getting extremely frustrated. Finally, his curiosity overcame his frustration.

    "Petrovich," he said, "I know you. Tell me what you’re smuggling out of here, and I’ll let you go."

    "Wheelbarrows," said Petrovich.[2]

Error has been smuggled into the church under the pretense of truth since the beginning of time (Gen 3:1-7). Jesus warned His disciples not to be led astray by traditions that have the effect of setting "aside the commandment of God" (Mark. 7:9). Paul cautioned the "elders of the church" at Ephesus that after his departure "savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:17, 29-30). It’s no less true today than in John’s day that "many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1), many of whom "went out from us" (2:19).

Christmas, the celebration of the Incarnation (John 1:1, 14), has certainly lost its meaning for millions of people around the world. But I wonder if Christmas has lost its meaning for millions of Christians who take the day seriously. Christmas has become a safe day of celebration by the church. How can a baby, shepherds, and a manger be offensive? The enemies of the Incarnation know better. Herod knew that babies grow up and can become a threat (Matt. 2). His response to the inquiry of the Magi was predictable. Herod had executed his second wife Mariamne I, his brother-in-law, his two sons, and his mother-in-law because they were seen as a threat to his throne. Today’s "Jesus Jackers" are rank amateurs compared to Herod the Great and Herod Antipas who was involved in the deaths of John the Baptist (Matt. 14:1-12), Jesus (Luke 23:7-12), and James the brother of John (Acts 12:1-4).

The claim is often made that the world and the things in the world are off limits to Christians; that the best way to live the Christian life is not to get involved in "the world." Holiness is defined as an escape from this world, if not physically through some cataclysmic eschatological event like a rapture,[3] then certainly by being separated from the affairs of this world by an unwillingness to acknowledge that God has made us stewards of His good creation of which one day He will demand an accounting (Matt. 25:14-30). In the topsy-turvy world of modern theology, we become winners by losing, and we often do our best to inform the world that we are no threat to their worldview.

Instead of following the directive of Abraham Kuyper who said "there is not one inch of creation of which Christ doesn’t say ‘Mine,’"[4] we often choose, "there is not one inch of creation of which Satan doesn’t say ‘Mine.’" Does the Incarnation really make a difference this side of the grave? Other than "personal salvation," many Christians do not believe it does. Historically, the church did not divide the world into two opposing realms, consisting of sacred/secular, spiritual/ material. More importantly, the Bible does not divide the world this way. The Bible is concerned about the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral wherever such distinctions can be made.

The biblical doctrine of creation tells us that the created order is an arena for Christian activity and ministry. God put Adam and Eve in the midst of the garden to "cultivate it and keep it" (Gen. 2:15). The duty of man to rule was also given to him, albeit in a prescribed and limited way. While God reserves ultimate authority and sovereignty for Himself, He delegates a subordinate authority and sovereignty to man as a steward and vice-regent over the created order. God also sets the rules by which man is to exercise that delegated stewardship and sovereignty. In fact, it was the breaking of these established creation laws that got Adam and Eve exiled from the garden. Even so, they were still called upon to live and work in what is now a fallen world (3:22-24).

The opening line of the Apostles’ Creed tells us that God is the "Maker of Heaven and Earth," of a creation that Scripture describes as being "very good" (Gen. 1:31). God is not the world as in pantheism, nor is He indifferent to or distant from the world as with deism. Neither is the world an emanation from God as in New Age humanism. "The creed confesses a living God; no detached spectator on the world and its fate, God is the leading actor. All powerful, he retains and exercises the initiative. This is the most basic theme in the Christian world view."[5]

Sin has affected the world. Even so, God has not forsaken it, just like He has not forsaken us because of our sin. His redeeming work in and over this world has a transforming effect on all aspects of our fallen domain. God was pleased to dwell in Christ "and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through His blood; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven" (Col. 1:20). We learn through Scripture that "whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith" (1 John 5:4). "The Christian’s responsibility on earth is to transform the world that ‘thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10)."[6]

Because God is the One who brought "heaven and earth" into existence and "upholds all things by the word of His power" (Heb. 1:3), this alone should be enough to convince all Christians who recite the opening line to the Apostles’ Creed that this world should count for something. While evil may exist in this world because of sin, the world in and of itself is not evil. "Whatsoever is evil, is not so by the Creator’s action, but by the creature’s defection."[7] We should be skeptical of any theology that defames any part of God’s good creation. "There is no nature originally sinful, no substance in itself evil, no being, therefore, which may not come from the same fountain of goodness."[8]

Some Christians have forsaken the doctrine of creation, not as a belief, but as a practical application of a belief. They contend that while God created the physical heavens and earth, the created order is an encumbrance, a temporary inconvenience this side of the afterlife. Such beliefs have more in common with pagan religions than with the Bible. For example, animists are anti-world. They believe that nature is governed by capricious unseen forces that bedevil and disturb the natural order of things. Animists contend that nature is animated, alive with unpredictable gods and goddesses intent on disorder. This has the effect of turning nature into a living essence that is to be feared and placated rather than examined, developed, and probed. The results of animist belief patterns are evident in that science and technology never developed in these cultures. "Nor could science have originated in India among the Hindus, nor in China among the Buddhists, for both Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the physical world is unreal and that the only reality is that of the world’s soul and that the greatest thing anyone has to learn is that the physical world is not real. Therefore, there would have been no point in spending one’s life fooling with that which had no reality in the first place."[9]

While Christians certainly don’t share the worldviews of animists, Buddhists, and Hindus, many who hold an anti-world worldview do so as the result of misguided theological beliefs that have the same anti-cultural effects. The development of culture, art, music, science, literature, medicine would never have developed if Christians had followed an anti-world theology.[10]

Redemption restores both man and creation in Christ. Early in his ministry, Peter failed to understand the gospel’s comprehensive cleansing effects. He could not believe the Gentiles were "clean," even through Christ’s redemptive work. In time he realized that "What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy" (Acts 10:15; cf. Matt. 15:11; Rom. 14:14, 20). The fall did not nullify God’s pronouncement that the created order "was very good" (Gen. 1:31), because the Bible looked forward to what the renewing work of Jesus Christ would bring about: "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer" (1 Tim. 4:4-5).

Scripture is our guide as we deal with the world and not the two-dimensional worldviews of secularism, pietism, or escapism. God "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14) in this world! We, as Christ’s disciples, are to carry out His mission in the world. Jesus worked in his earthly father’s shop as a carpenter, affirming the goodness of the created order and the value of physical labor. We are called on to perform a similar task in the calling that God has for us and our posterity.

Endnotes:

[1] A. Wilson Phillips, "Seeing the Future Clearly," Hidden Manna (March 2002), 6.
[2]
Os Guinness, "The Christian and Society," in James M. Boice, ed., Transforming Our World: A Call to Action (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1988), 52.
[3]
See Gary DeMar, Last Days Madness: Obsession of the Modern Church, 4th ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 1999) and End Times Fiction: A Biblical Consideration of the Left Behind Theology, 2nd ed. (Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, [2001] 2009).
[4] Douglas Groothuis, "Revolutionizing our Worldview," The Reformed Journal (November, 1982), 23.
[5]
Arthur F. Holmes, Contours of a World View (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 57.
[6] Robert E. Webber, Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978), 205.
[7] John Pearson, An Exposition of the Creed, 2 vols. 3rd ed. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1847), 1:79.
[8] John Eyre Yonge, An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1887), 27.
[9] D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 95.
[10]
Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001).

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