This was a commencement address that I gave in 1998 at Biblical Theological Seminary. You can download the text here. Shogren_Christianity without Christ
In the last century, during the heyday of Liberal Christianity, a fringe group of thinkers raised the question, “Does a person really have to believe in Christ in order to be a good Christian? Does the absence of Jesus do any real damage to the Christian faith?” Theodore Parker, for example, preached:
If it could be proved…that Jesus of Nazareth had never lived, still Christianity would stand firm, and fear no evil.
Shouldn’t it be possible, they conjectured, to go forward with the lovely system of ethics that Jesus might have taught, but not accept all that religious baggage about miracles and the virgin birth and the resurrection?
One wonders, parenthetically, what charming ethical points they were talking about. Surely not the one about hating your mother and father for Christ’s sake? Or the warning about going to Gehenna if you slander someone? Well, no matter, let’s just run with the theory as it stands.
Now, if I were really lazy, I could raise that theory today, that is, can there be Christianity without Christ. With this crowd, I could probably knock it down with a one-word rebuttal (or two, if I wanted to use my boys’ lingo and say, “Well, duh!”). And we could all go downstairs for punch and cookies.
Instead, let me point out a few truths, old truths that are worth repeating.
First, yes, of course, we must reject a system “without Christ,” one in which Christ plays no part at all. Second, having repelled the obvious error, might we succumb to a subtler one? Might we settle for a Christianity in which Christ plays not large enough a role? We could strain at a “Christianity without Christ” and swallow a Christianity without, well…not quite enough Christ.
Could your existence actually degenerate into a farcical stage play in which the really memorable characters are named Committee, Strategy, Effort, Advancement – and in which a minor character named Jesus Christ occasionally makes a walk-on appearance to bail you out whenever you get panicky enough to try prayer?…What if we have a heart in which Christ is present, our best God, if you will, but not all-consuming?
I’m not conjuring up an imaginary danger, but a long-running one. Back in the 370’s AD a theologian named Epiphanius of Salamis wrote a book that was a complete catalogue of every heresy that the church had ever encountered. He titled it the Panarion (meaning The Medicine Chest). It listed 80 distinct groups, with bygone names like the Massalians, the Photinians, the Pneumatomachi. Now, heresy differs from heresy, but here’s the kicker for me: the vast majority of these false sects affirmed without hesitation the great importance of Christ. But still they ended up fundamentally in error. Why? Because while Christ was something to them, he wasn’t everything, and that’s what spoiled their belief systems.
You here today, do you believe in Jesus? You do well. But the Unification Churchers, the Moonies, believe too, in a sense, and that makes me tremble.
No, it’s not a new delusion at all. Even in the New Testament there are apostolic corrections for a whole range of doctrinal deviations. But they all had one common failing – for them Christ was merely one feature of their system (albeit an essential one).
Think of the Judaizing Christians in Acts 15. They’re recorded as teaching:
“Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” [Acts 15:1]
“The Gentiles [who believed in Jesus] must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses.” [Acts 15:5]
Did these messianic Jews really fall for “Christianity without Christ”? No! the text says that these former Pharisees were believers in Jesus. Their problem lay in ranking circumcision as anything like a rival to Christ. They affirmed: “Christ is important, surely, but that doesn’t mean he is the answer to all questions about our life in God!”
How about the Colossian heretics? “Christ is special,” they might have argued, “but saying that doesn’t settle issues that need a regimen of Sabbath observance and dietary regulations.” The error in Hebrews? Christ is prominent, vitally so, in fact he’s right up there with the angels; but not weighty enough to displace the temple ritual.
Heresy differs from heresy, but in the end they all worship in the Church of Christ and Other Equally Indispensable Stuff; they all sing Jesus choruses from the Faint Praise Hymnal.
May this be far from every one of us. We Christians are called on not just to work Jesus Christ into our program. In confessing him as Lord, we assert that he is the all-encompassing one. As one 17th century Christian wrote:
Everything in the kingdom, every spiritual thing, refers to Christ and centres in him.
We sometimes call Christ the star or the morning star, but modern astronomy might offer us a further analogy. Think of a contracting star. Here is a cosmic body that, as it shrinks, gains mind-bogglingly high density and gravity. It sucks in not only all matter but also light. That’s Christ: not just a pretty sparkling light, but the one who pulls the cosmos to revolve around himself.
Let’s make sure you’re not hearing me recommend some perversion of that truth. For example, over here is the liberal Christian who thinks there’s a difference between being God-centered and being Christ-centered. But we grasp for Christ-centeredness in its Trinitarian sense, meaning that to be God-centered IS to be Christ-centered, and vice versa. Again, over here, the mystic thinks of Christ-centeredness as the obliteration of personal identity: we cease to exist and are absorbed. Again, no! I exist, but as a being who loves Christ and lives in union with him. That’s how we are to understand Paul when he says:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. [Gal. 2:20]
For to me, to live is Christ [Phil. 1:21]
And that’s a truth that re-arranges not just our feelings about our existence, but all of God’s creation. In the passage we read from Ephesians, that “when the times will have reached their fulfillment,” God will…
bring all things in heaven or on earth together under one head, even Christ. [Eph. 1:10]
To translate it another way, all things in the coming kingdom are “to be comprehended under one head” (so Markus Barth). God will one day sum up all reality as the reality of Christ and under Christ’s rule.
But listen, graduates. What could distract us from Christ-centeredness? The usual suspects, of course – heresy, self-centeredness, the seven deadly sins. But it’s not just the bad things that pull us from him. It can also be good things if they become our real passion, elbowing Christ aside and becoming false loves.
Today we’ll think of two of these possible rivals to Christ. The first will be, shockingly enough:
1. Theology as an end in itself.
Of course, too many people today drift toward the opposite error and say “don’t get bogged down in theology – just love the Lord!” As if you could have one without the other!
But could you conceivably make it the end of life, rather than a means to an end? Do you find yourself jumping up to defend our doctrinal points because you love doctrine, or because you love the Lord of Doctrine? What a disgrace, to be hot on theology, but merely warm toward Jesus Christ? And don’t imagine that it doesn’t happen!
I meet a lot of Christians who are devoted to a lot of causes, and not even theology per se. It could be Republicanism, or environmentalism, capitalism, entrepreneurism, home schooling, Amway, a particular counseling method, or even foreign missions. Being in Christ is useful as it “helps the cause.”
Augustine, that great African theologian of the 5th century, maybe the greatest theologian of all time, showed us the right path when he said:
Christ is not valued at all, unless he be valued above all.
Authentic theology is doxological – it is about the glory of God, and finding God in Christ, and knowing the truth that sets us free to love him. It’s not a device for holding him at arm’s length.
But why pick on the theology department? For those of us who are more inclined to biblical exegesis, it’s the same story.
If you dropped by my office during the summer of ‘94, I was busy rewriting a book on the Greek language…I had stacks of Greek grammars all around my office, one on each knee, and books propped up on my table. I’d slowly rotate my office chair 360 degrees, then write down a sentence about, say, the syntax of the dative case. Now don’t get all squeamish on me, but I had fun doing it. But for goodness sake, where’s the point of spending all that energy debating whether this is an objective genitive or that is an ingressive aorist, if that’s where it ends? What kind of goal is that, unless we can come to say, “with this new particle of grammatical information…maybe, under the illuminating presence of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father, it’ll give us a tiny nudge closer to Jesus Christ, as we understand his truth just that much better.”
Graduates, now that you have a degree, you are now at a place where you can not end but begin learning. And I hope you’ll continue your education, formal and informal, through a lifetime. But never lose the truth that Christ is, after all, the really interesting thing about Christianity. So:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith [Heb 12:2]
But I mentioned there were two good things that may ease Christ out…what’s the other?
2. Kingdom Activity as an end in itself
If you know the name Garrison Keillor, you may recall his stories of the Lutherans of Lake Woebegon. They aren’t big on emotionalism, don’t you know. Tears of repentance are okay, but after you rush forward to the altar, move along. Make yourself useful! Join the building committee!
This is for the other half of believers here today, including myself, we who don’t light up at the thought of talking about truth. We’d rather go out and do things for the Lord. For you, then, isn’t there a danger that Christ isn’t the end, but the means to an end? Stick close to him and maybe he’ll put you in the game?
Don’t think it can’t happen! There are plenty of Christians who thirst for personal significance by keeping busy for Christ. Sure, they get things done. But inside there’s an itching for meaning that isn’t eased simply by loving Christ. And so their busyness isn’t a love offering, but a scratching post they can rub against. They worship at the shrine of Holy Commotion.
My curiosity was piqued during my interviews at Seminario ESEPA. At least twice, they asked me whether I thought it was sinful for a missionary to take annual vacations. My response was, “Absolutely not. Well, what would I be doing on this vacation? But nope, not bad per se. Why do you ask?”
Because they wanted to make sure that I don’t worship work. Every mission field has its crusading workaholics. For them, it’s no longer “Work for the Savior,” it’s “Work is my Savior.”
For the last few years I kept seeing our students reading John Piper’s book on why we do missions, entitled Let the Nations Be Glad, and I finally got to reading it and loved it. Why do we do missions, he asks? Because
…the nations [are] gathering for the glory of Christ. God means for his Son to be the center of worship as the nations receive the word of reconciliation.
Beautiful. Kingdom machinery, like theology, should be a friend, within which you express your love for Christ. Don’t ever commit spiritual adultery by allowing it to become your main love interest, or even a competing one.
One outbreak is described in Revelation 2, the letter to the church in Ephesus. Oh they had activity aplenty…in fact, that church was probably the epicenter for Christian missions and outreach into Asia Minor. So Jesus said to them:
“I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance.” [Rev. 2:2a]
But then he had to conclude:
“Yet I hold this against you: you have forsaken your first love…If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” [Rev. 2:4-5]
He would snuff them out, and for good cause. For what does it profit a church to gain the world by missions but lose its Christ?
No, our attitude when we preach sermons, or counsel the distraught, or go on missions, should be like that of a little child. She holds up a paper to you with a childish crayon drawing and says, “Here – I made this just for you.”
There will be variety in our expressions of Christ-centeredness, as each one of us is different. How will it look for you? You might start by asking yourself, how do I appear to others when I’m in love? Not in a crush, but in a deep love commitment?
Let me tell you a story about our marriage, that shows you what I mean. In December 1994 I took my first missions trip to Romania. While I was there I was beginning to wonder whether I’d actually get back home for Christmas, and it was our first one in our new house. I thought about the kids and missed them a lot. In fact, when I got home, I found that my daughter had started talking while I’d been away. That was a hard thing to miss! The very first thing I heard her say was “Daddy’s home.”
However, I felt that I didn’t miss Karen on that same level. When I got home, I wanted to tell her about it…and you can imagine me saying to myself, “Step carefully, Shog, there are potentially hazardous ways of expressing this.” But I finally put it into words – “You know, I missed the kids, but in only two weeks I couldn’t miss you, because I couldn’t imagine that you weren’t next to me. I thought of you, and I knew you were thinking of me. When I saw interesting things, I saw them with your eyes too. You are too much a part of me to get you out of my head just because you’re in a distant country.”
Our relationship with Christ is in some ways like marriage, yet so much more of a spiritual unity than anything else you could imagine. We can see things as he sees them, smile when we see something we know he likes, be sad when we hear things that would grieve him, and be one with him in love.
Charles Spurgeon asked why people would want to stray from that. He asks the returners to the fold:
Take care, then, when you find your Master, to cling close to him. But how is it you have lost him? One would have thought you would never have parted with such a precious friend, whose presence is so sweet, whose words are so comforting, and whose company is so dear to you! How is it that you did not watch him every moment for fear of losing sight of him? Morning and Evening, Morning, January 19
Amen! The very universe is hurtling toward the great “summing up” in Christ our Head. Theology, exegesis, kingdom action, human relationships, personal holiness – whatever good thing you can name, they are all important, because they matter to him.
1900 years ago, the early church father Clement of Rome gave us the right direction:
This is the way, dear friends, in which we found our salvation, namely, Jesus Christ, the High Priest of our offerings, the Guardian and Helper of our weakness. Through him let us look steadily into the heights of heaven;
through him we see as in a mirror his faultless and transcendent face;
through him the eyes of our hearts have been opened;
through him our foolish and darkened mind springs up into the light;
through him the Master has willed that we should taste immortal knowledge…
[1 Clem. 36.1-2]
And so, graduates, remember that Jesus Christ is the reason for affirming and defending the inspiration of Scripture. Embracing Christ is the end of sola gracia and sola fide – by grace alone, through faith alone. His is the aspiration of the Reformers.
All things are about Christ,
And for his pleasure.
His the fellowship of the saints.
His the creeds, his the spontaneous testimonies.
His the classic hymns, his the contemporary choruses.
His the source and the point of spiritual gifts.
His the masters’ degrees.
His the research, his the thought process.
His every spark across every neuron in every conscious mind.
Don’t you forget in all your work for him:
His are the people groups of the earth.
His the 10-40 window.
His the preaching style.
His those Hebrew verbs, his that Greek exegesis.
His the strategy, his the goals.
His the offering plate, his the budget.
His the days of your youth, his your twilight years.
His the time for action, his the time for rest.
His the sunny mountain top, his the dark night of the soul.
He alone the point of life, in whom “we live and move and have our being.”
His every brother and sister,
His the lovable ones, his the difficult ones.
His the church, his the world, his the cosmos.
It’s all about him to the farthest corner, to the glory of God the Father.
May you too grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen [2 Pet. 3:18]
ADDITIONAL NOTE: Here Augustine makes the same point we are trying to establish: “For if we think carefully about the meaning of Christ, we shall see that among some of the heretics who wish to be called Christians, the NAME of Christ is held in honor, but the reality itself is not among them.” Augustine, Enchiridion 1 §5.
 From an 1841 sermon “A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in The Critical and Miscellaneous Writings of Theodore Parker (2d ed., Boston: Leighton, 1859), 172. Parker is best remembered today as an abolitionist of the extreme fringe, a supporter of John Brown.
 Isaac Penington, Selections from the works of Isaac Penington (London: Darton and Harvey, 1837), 161. [From the section “On Obedience,” 1681]. Penington was an early Quaker minister.
 John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad: the Supremacy of God in Missions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 134.
“‘Christianity-without-Christ’ and Other Pointless Projects,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica