SUPERFICIAL RELIGION AND SUPERNATURAL REGENERATION
I always get a little nervous when people compare/contrast Christianity with the other religions of the world. This is not because I see it as something inherently wrong. On the contrary, it is a good practice to be undertaken since Christians need to be able to distinguish Christianity from other major world religions. However, it usually ends with a massive sweeping claim that draws a line in the sand. The ‘authoritative claim’ is usually off a bit, or at least needs to be nuanced. So begins Platt’s chapter. Like almost all of his examples in the book, thus far, he tells a tale when he was in another country (India) and how upon further reflection he realized something. In this instance, it is a sharp distinction between Christianity and Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Where is the major line drawn between Christianity and these other four religions?
[I]n every religion, a teacher (or a series of teachers) prescribes certain paths to follow in order to honor God (or different gods) and experience salvation (however that is described)….When Jesus came on the scene in human history and began calling followers to himself, he did not say, ‘Follow certain rules. Observe specific regulations. Perform certain duties. Pursue a particular path.’ Instead, he said, ‘Follow me’ (pp. 53-54).
Continuing this stream of thought, Platt remarks:
With these two simple words, Jesus made clear that his primary purpose was not to instruct his disciples in a prescribed religion; his primary purpose was to invite his disciples into a personal relationship. He was not saying, ‘Go this way to find truth and life.’ Instead, he was saying, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.’ The call of Jesus was, ‘Come to me. Find rest for your souls in me. Find joy in your heart from me. Find meaning in your life through me (54).
Unfortunately, Platt makes a false dichotomy between following Jesus and following rules. What he fails to realize is that following Jesus involves following rules prescribed by Jesus! Platt’s logic isn’t even consistent. For example, he keeps harking upon making disciples (Matt 28), fully recognizing this is a command, yet he makes the sort of statements above. Since he is so keen on Matthew’s Gospel, what about the Sermon on the Mount? I’ll grant him that the Sermon on the Mount is not Utopian ethics, for it is eschatological ethics. Jesus is not just a teacher of timeless truths. However, The SOTM setup portrays Jesus going up the mountain and speaking about living. Ding, ding, ding. There is probably Moses typology taking place here (or Wisdom). Jesus repeatedly says, “You have heard it said this, but I say to you…”Are the commands/imperatives given by Jesus categorically different than rules? What about Paul, et al?. What about the Law of Christ? If Jesus or Paul says, “Do or don’t do this,” (and contextually is ostensibly ‘normative’) are we supposed to say, “Well that is not a rule”?
I also find it particularly interesting that he states Jesus did not say, “Pursue a particular path,” but instead he said, “Follow me.” His substantiation is John 14:6, that is, “I am the way…” What’s the difference between path and way? They are synonymous. Early Christians were called followers of the Way. Yes, Jesus is the Way, but he also paves the way to the Father, and that includes doing and not doing things, that is, dos and don’ts. Platt should reread Mark’s Gospel and the theme of ‘the way’, especially the e˙n thØv oJdwˆ◊ (on the way) leitmotif found in chs 8—10. Where are Jesus and his disciples going? They are on the way to Jerusalem, where he will march towards his death. And he is calling his disciples to follow him, that is, go the way of the cross (cruciformity). The way of the Lord, is the way of the cross. The way of the kingdom is the way of the cross (and vice versa). Look at the ethical teachings in those chapters…the way is cruciformity. When Jesus says, “If anyone desires to follow me, he must deny himself (imperative), take up his cross (imperative), and follow me (imperative),” he is ordering his disciples what to do. Will they do it?
The Burden of Rules
While he’s at it, he might as well throw in Judaism (or at least the teachers of the Law) into the mix:
These Galilean fishermen were surrounded by a religious establishment that was consumed with rules and regulations. Teachers of the law had taken the commands of God in the Old Testament and twisted them to become the principal means by which one could earn God’s favor (55).
Coming full circle, Platt’s pronounces his viewpoint on contemporary Christianity, saying, “[s]lowly and subtly, we have let Christianity devolve into just another set of rules, regulations, practices, and principles to observe” (54). Watch out, he warns, or we will end up being like these other religions, doing works apart from Christ (55).
I think Platt’s problem with rules is derived from his idea of works righteousness, justification by faith (which he equates with the gospel), and his caricature of Paul’s attitude towards works of the Law (a particular Reformed view). First, the Law was not given as a means of salvation. Jews understood this perfectly. Remember, God saved the Jews from exile in Egypt (vis-à-vis the exodus), and then he gave them the Law. God called His people to be “holy as I am holy.” So, what’s the way to live as God’s people (and therefore be holy)? The Law. Jews did not view it as some sort of bootstrap to pull on in order to gain ‘merit’ with God. I wonder how Platt would respond to Paul’s autobiographical statement, “as to righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Phil 3:6)? Platt’s caricature of the teachers of the Law is so often declared in Christian circles with regard to Pharisees. He’s off.
A New Heart
All this rule keeping is burdensome, and is the result of superficial religion. What one needs is a new heart and be cleansed by Jesus:
The clear message of the Bible is that there is nothing we can do to make our hearts clean before a holy God. We can work constantly, pray fervently, give extravagantly, and love sacrificially, but our hearts will be stained by sin. This is why the Bible teaches that faith alone in Christ alone is the only way to salvation from sin. Faith is the anti-work…Consider the wonder. For all who come to Christ and receive a new heart from him, the God of the universe looks at you and says, ‘I have absolutely no record of anything every having gone wrong in your life’ (60-61).
Yes, a new heart is needed, one of flesh replacing one of stone.
The clear message of the Bible…there’s a better grand narrative than this truncated version provided by Platt. Faith is the anti-work. No faith is anti-sin. See the Review of chapter two.
‘I have absolutely no record of anything every having gone wrong in your life’…where does he get that? How about judgment in accordance with works? God doesn’t forget your sins.
Our Greatest Need
A further problem is that people are mistakenly equating the gospel with health and wealth. What’s the Gospel, then, according to David Platt?
The Good News of Christ is not primarily that Jesus will heal you of all your sickness right now, but ultimately that Jesus will forgive you of all your sins forever. The Good News of Christ is not that if you must enough faith in Jesus, you can have physical and material reward on this earth. The Good News of Christ is that when you have childlike faith in Jesus, you will be reconciled to God for eternity (63).
The Good News of Christ is…primarily that Jesus will…forgive you of all your sins forever. No. The Gospel is the royal proclamation that Jesus the Messiah (the one in and through whom Israel’s history finds its purpose and climax) is the crucified, resurrected and ascended Lord of the cosmos. It would be helpful to reexamine the use of euangelion and its cognates in its intertextual contexts (both Scripturally [e.g., Isa 52:7-10 climaxing in “Your God reigns!”] and culturally [e.g., the emperors in the Greco-Roman world]), whereby kingly rule is much more emphatic. Soteriological implications are the result of the gospel. Thus, Platt pushes a soterian gospel.
A New Spirit
He is quick to respond that Christianity doesn’t just stop with the forgiveness of sins, but “[w]hen you come to Jesus, he not only forgives you of your sin, but he also fills you with his Spirit” (65). Therefore, this is the heart of Jesus calling us, because ‘[w]hen you become a Christian, you die, and Jesus becomes your life” (65). Therefore to summarize the stunning message of Christianity:
Jesus died for you so that he might live in you. Jesus doesn’t merely improve your old nature; he imparts to you an entirely new nature—one that is completely united with his….When you come to Jesus, his Spirit fills your spirit. His love becomes your love. His joy becomes your joy. His mind becomes your mind. His desires become your desires. His will becomes your will. His purpose becomes your purpose. His power becomes your power. The Christian life thus becomes nothing less than the outliving of the indwelling Christ (65-66).
Thus, this is the “distinction between superficial religion and supernatural regeneration” (66). That is, to clarify, “[s]uperficial religion involves a counterfeit ‘Christian’ life that consists of nothing more than truths to believe and things to do, and it misses the essence of what it means to follow Jesus,” whereas “[s]upernatural regeneration…involves an authentic Christian life that has been awakened by the Spirit, truth, love, passion, power, and purpose of Jesus” (66).
I like what he has to say in this section. I do have reservations, however, with how he pits ‘superficial religion’ against ‘supernatural regeneration.’ Christianity is a religion. Another point of contention has to do with when he speaks of regeneration and Jesus living inside us. First, I have friends who gradually became Christians, or at least, cannot pin down the exact day, hour, minute, and second of their so-called conversion. Not every Christian has a Damascus Road experience. Secondly, I’m a little uneasy with the whole notion that “When you come to Jesus, his Spirit fills your spirit. His____becomes your____.” This could very well give one the impression that upon conversion there is an immediate conformity to Christ. I cannot imagine that is his intention, given some of the earlier statements he made in his book; however, he needs to make further clarification.
From Being Disciples to Making Disciples
Platt directs the reader towards the notion that Jesus’ invitation doesn’t notify the disciples what they are to do, but rather what “he will cause them to do” (i.e., become fishers of humanity, 67). This would take place by the work that he would do “in them” (67). He asserts that “[s]omewhere between Matthew 4 and Matthew 28, Jesus had caused these disciples to become disciple makers. He had transformed these followers into fishermen, and by the time they got to that mountain in Matthew 28, they were eager to tell everyone about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus” (67-68). Platt’s analysis of the church today is that we have “taken the costly command of Christ to go, baptize, and teach all nations and mutated it into a comfortable call for Christians to come, be baptized, and sit in one location” (69). Furthermore, he’s “convinced that the majority of professing Christians would not say their purpose in this life is to make disciples of all nations” (69).
First, I would like to point out that Platt’s emphasis on the work Christ did in them (i.e., the disciples) seems a bit of a stretch and anachronistic. It wasn’t until Pentecost that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit. These guys had not been completely transformed between Matthew 4 and 28, not to mention that they dropped the ball often. Next, while I totally understand one of his central texts being the Great Commission, I wonder if he has ever paused to see who Jesus is sending out. Yes, it is the disciples, but more specifically the 11 apostles. This core group was with Jesus throughout his ministry (though they bailed on him when it came to his arrests and subsequent crucifixion). They were immersed in his teaching, and were eyewitness testimonies, which brings me to my next point: discipleship inherently involves teaching. A mathetes is a student, an apprentice. They are told to make more apprentices of Jesus, including teaching them to keep/guard everything that Jesus commanded to them. This passage is very instructional. It involves teaching others to keep everything Jesus commanded (do’s and don’ts!). Well, you gotta know what he taught in order to do that! Furthermore, we know that teaching is not taken lightly in the New Testament. James goes so far as to say that not many should pursue being teachers, for teachers will be judged more heavily (James 3). Paul appeared to take some time and double check with some eyewitness testimonial sources before heading out to preach and teach God’s kingly rule (Galatians 1—2). And what did Paul preach everywhere he went? Answer: his “ways which are in Christ” (1 Cor 4:17). Moreover, what about individuals having gifts to be teachers or evangelists? I want to be vividly clear that I’m not curtailing the idea of going out and making disciples; rather, my fear is that many get pumped up and are discharge to proclaim the gospel, but their teaching may be inadequate. What happens after someone is captivated and begins his or her journey of following Christ (say conversion!) after hearing the Gospel? Do you pick up your things and hand them a Bible and say, “Here ya go.” No. We live in a biblically illiterate culture, and sadly it is prevalent in many churches. Discipleship takes time. It’s not instantaneous; it’s progressive. You have to learn the language of God’s new world, and many times this is through teaching, and the subsequent unnatural implementation of it. Now, I don’t want to give the idea that teaching only exists in a pedagogical setting; many times it is through mimesis. And that’s the ultimate teaching we must strive for (1 Cor 4:17), is to imitate Christ with our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 11:1).
He, then, puts forth a conditional statement basically summarized as this: if Christianity consists only of ‘dos and don’ts’ combined with superficiality (see above), then it doesn’t have much more to offer than the other religions of the world. Contrarily, “if Christianity involves supernatural regeneration whereby the God of the universe reaches down his hand of mercy into the depths of our souls, forgives us of all our sin, and fills us with his Spirit, then a spectator mentality is spiritually inconceivable” (70).
See above on how I think he is making a caricature of do’s and don’ts.
Have You Been Born Again?
Platt ends the chapter with the question, “have you been born again?” (73), which is ostensibly a transition into chapter 4 DON’T MAKE JESUS YOUR PERSONAL LORD AND SAVIOR.
 See Jason Hood’s forthcoming, Imitating God in Christ.