A church minister from abroad once had a strong influence over the forty-plus years of being a Christian believer. Back in 1976, the pastor of a Pentecostal Church in Argentina's capital Buenos Aires, came over to visit the UK, and delivered a series of sermons at a public auditorium in Reading, not far from where I live. After the sermon was over, I sauntered to the front where he was standing, with both of us ending in a clinch of a tight hug which must have lasted for a better part of a whole minute.
His sermons had a big impact on me, especially when it comes to praising God. His church was typically Pentecostal, where informal services, free from any fixed liturgy, normally include the four phrases of worship: Praise God!, Hallelujah!, Glory be!, and Amen! Then one day he asked his own congregation what they were praising God for. Where anyone would think that his greatness and power, the source of the free gift of salvation should have been the obvious answer, instead his congregation was shocked into stunned silence. It was then that the pastor coined up the term Empty praise.
Their praises were likened to boxes with gaily-coloured wrapping, very much like unopened Christmas presents under the decorative tree. Praises are offered to God as if we are offering to him all the well-wrapped presents. Then the Lord takes each of these gifts, excitedly unwraps each one, only to find each box to be empty. Empty boxes. His insistence that our praises to God can be ritualistic without any real substance given for praising him, has struck a cord in my heart, causing me to ponder on why I'm praising God. His effect had lasted for the rest of my life. Whenever I want to praise God, I always try to reason why I'm praising him. Praising him for who he is - the Almighty, the Creator and Sustainer of all life, along with his love and mercy - the most obvious being the free three-fold gift of salvation: Justification, Imputation, and Eternal Security. But there are many more reasons: Such as the beauty found in this world, a healthy marriage to a loving wife, our daily supply of food and clothing, having a roof over our heads, a history of travel, both as a singleton and as one of a couple, and thanking the Lord to see this particular day in human history.
It looks to me that there is an overlapping link between thanksgiving and praise, even though praise for what it is actually means to exalt God for who he is. It is difficult to praise someone who is a spirit: invisible, inaudible, and untouchable. So, as Paul wrote to the Romans, that the invisible qualities of God, his eternal power and divine glory, are seen in his Creation (Romans 1:20). Little wonder whenever I gaze upon something naturally spectacular - like a powerful waterfall, the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, or for that matter the stars in the night sky, or admiring trees, whether its the Traveller's Palm trees of Singapore, the Mangroves of Queensland or the sturdy English Oak, I can't help but magnify the goodness of God as Creator in my heart. Hence a gift of praise offered to God which is actually worth opening.
|Travellers Palm - I saw plenty in Singapore|
But praising God was not the only topic this pastor was delivering. He was also the same man who coined up the term The Fifth Gospel. That is, we as Christians tend to favour parts of the Bible which is favourable, and leaving out the less favourable. Rather like a child licking off the jam and then handing back the bread. The Gospel of Offers versus the Gospel of Demands. Basically, the Fifth Gospel is man-centred, in opposition of a far less popular God-centred demands. Maybe looking at these Scriptures may enlighten such statements this Argentinian pastor has made.
We have this verse, found in Matthew 11:28:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Matthew 11:28 may be called a verse of the Fifth Gospel, according to the pastor. It is a popular verse found quoted by itself in text books or preached from the pulpit. However, the very next verse may not be held so highly, because here the Lord is asking for something:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me...
A yoke is a wooden bar strapped across the necks of two oxen for the purpose of pulling a cart in unison. What the Lord Jesus is really offering is a lighter yoke in exchange for the heavy yoke in trying to keep the Law of Moses. But even the offer of a light yoke is not seen as part of the Fifth Gospel.
A more striking example is found in Luke 12:32 -
Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.
What a lovely example of a verse from the Fifth Gospel - the offering of the kingdom from the Father in Heaven. But then the Lord takes a very different direction in the very next verse, one of demand and certainly not part of the Fifth Gospel:
Sell your possessions and give to the poor.
Ah, not quite so nice after all! This voluntary impoverishing approved by the Lord has been the cause of my envy towards the homeless back in the 1970's, particularly in London, due to a false belief that by the state they were in, they were closer to God than the average citizen such as myself. He doesn't even stop there. Soon after conversion towards the end of 1972, I was drawn to this verse: Luke 14:33, which reads:
In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.
In the forty-plus years of being a Christian, I don't think I have ever heard this verse preached from the pulpit. Far from being an example taken from the Fifth Gospel, I once read that this particular verse is the most unpopular verse in the entire Bible. Of all statements Jesus has uttered, this one must be the most demanding. What does it mean, forsaking all that he has, as the KJV puts it? Comparing this verse along with others of the same topic, Jesus does seem to indicate that selling our possessions to the poor in order to qualify for discipleship was part of his mainstream teaching. To the extent that Peter gasped at such a statement and asks:
Who then can be saved?
In which Jesus replies:
With man that's impossible, but with God all things are possible - Matthew 19:26, Luke 18:27.
Those finalising words - "With man that's impossible but with God all things are possible" - has lifted a yoke so heavy that it was practically impossible for me to bear, especially during the early years after conversion. And such an impossible yoke was placed around my neck by a cult group using false teaching aimed mostly at hippies and the desolate roaming around the streets of the city. With very little to give, what they had was easy for them to turn over to this particular group, which in return gave them a sense of belonging, together with a special favour with God. Really, it was nothing short of salvation by works, and as one as myself struggling in those days between Roman Catholicism and the free gift of salvation, all this was just an additional burden. However, these conclusive words from the Lord's mouth has changed the perception of everything. To make a choice to sell everything he has to give to the poor is impossible for a believer to undertake in his own strength, unless the grace of God works in the person's heart in such a way to bring him to the decision to voluntarily impoverish himself for the sake of the Kingdom. Even then, such a decision is the result of salvation, and not to merit it.
But the contrast of attitude towards which is part of the Fifth Gospel to what is not, could not be more apparent than the key verse which defines our church. the verse referred to is John 10:10, which reads
The thief comes only to kill and to steal and to destroy. I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full. It is John 10:10 which was chosen to be the church's catchphrase, and not, for example, Luke 14:33.
I'm not at all surprised that this verse, which could be considered as one from the Fifth Gospel, has become the catchphrase for our fellowship in Ascot. But such an offer by God through faith in Jesus, is necessary to attract the crowds. So such occurred during his ministry. Crowds gathered to hear the teachings of Jesus, to be healed by him, and to be fed supernaturally. They were indeed "lost sheep without a shepherd" as he expresses it. Then he suddenly turns around to this same crowd following him and utters strong words such as leaving father and mother, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters, along with everything he has, and even his own life as well, if anyone wants to follow him seriously. Impossible?
But actually, what he was doing was showing the truth of the First Commandment given by God through Moses to Israel:
You shall have no other gods before me - Exodus 20:3.
If this is true, then the forsaking of father, mother, brothers, sisters, children, his wealth, and even of his own life for God's glory falls within the realm of keeping the Law of Moses perfectly. According to the Law, my love for God must exceed everything else in my life. If I don't measure up to this standard, then I'm in serious trouble and in need of a Saviour. And that is the whole point of the first three Gospels, often referred as the Synoptic Gospels. Their main purpose was to demonstrate the true purpose of God's Law, how the Law is meant to be fulfilled, and how every person ever born falls short of such perfect keeping and in danger of Judgement. Just as the Synoptic Gospels shows up our sins, our weaknesses, and our shortcomings, so the Gospel of John reveals the solution to a universal problem.
The commandment of God is an impossible yoke to bear. As Peter gasped, "Who then can be saved?" The correct answer is that left alone to human devices, it is impossible to be saved. Each and everyone of us stands condemned!
That is why the teachings of Jesus contains many offers and promises, most of them found in the Gospel of John, but also found scattered across all four Gospels. These offers Jesus makes to the crowds are not from the Fifth Gospel, as such a "gospel" does not exist. Instead they all are from the true Gospel of salvation by free grace given to everyone who believes.
Experience has taught me, over the years, that such "wisdom" including that which was delivered by the Argentinian pastor simply plays upon semantics, and can be dangerous, even if the speaker meant well. I am aware that he would like to see churches, including his own, take on a more devout commitment towards God, including holding a deeper and more sincere meaning to praising God, but to tamper with the free grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, is the highway to damnable heresy and will bring down the curse of God, according to Paul's entire letter to the Galatians.