Wednesday, September 3, 2014

University Presbyterian, in Sacramento: learning the difference between EPC and PC (U.S.A.)?

Rev. Bob Azzarito is the new pastor at University Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a group nested in Fremont Presbyterian Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Sacramento. Azzarito is battling a caricature of his own making. He has been attempting to aid the people of his church by using his sermons to show them the difference between the EPC, and the PC (U.S.A.). His sermon series on the church site is “Another Way of Seeing,” but the advertisement for it in the Inside Publications has the headline, “Is Evangelicalism the only way to view God?” And in a neighborhood local list service UPC member, Judy Kerri, wrote an invitation to the River Park Community:                                                                                                                                    

University Presbyterian Church, a new church within the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), would like to extend an invitation for you to join us on Sunday mornings for our continuing series of sermons on "Another Way of Seeing."  If you have wondered whether or not there are other ways to understand God and the Bible other than Conservative Evangelicalism, then this study might be a help to you.  Over the past several decades, Evangelical thinking has dominated the airwaves, and as a result many think this is the only way to understand theology.  This Sunday, our new pastor, Bob Azzarito, who was himself raised in an Evangelical denomination before becoming a Presbyterian, continues to outline some of the main differences between Evangelicalism and the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). 

 This week he will be discussing the topic of salvation.  Did you know that the concept of being "born again," a common term and concept in Evangelical thinking, is not a standard Biblical definition of salvation?  It might also be surprising to learn that the idea of salvation in the Bible has little to do with what happens after death.  Join us at 11:15 am. Sunday, in the Chapel on the property of Fremont Church, 5770 Carlson Drive. 

Azzarito, isn’t just talking about evangelicalism in general because he is addressing members who did not want to follow Fremont out of the PC (U.S.A.) into the EPC. They rather chose and were given the privilege of staying PC (U.S.A.) while being nested on Fremont’s campus for ten years. That was part of the package that allowed Fremont to leave with their property. So with each sermon Azzarito in some way addresses the members’ experience of having chosen to not go with the other members of Fremont. And with that he attempts to show the differences between EPC and the PC (U.S.A.). For instance in the first sermon, after commiserating with the people and what has happened to them, Azzarito states, “… I’ve decided to spend some time articulating what it means to be PC (U.S.A.) and not EPC,” and “I want you to understand the distinctives.”

There are several problems. One is that The EPC is not just evangelical, they are also reformed and Azzarito doesn’t seem to understand the distinctives of the reformed faith. Another problem is that too many times he doesn’t understand the distinctives of evangelicalism. A third problem is Azzarito’s universalism. He believes that the Church is simply representatives of all of humanity who are already accepted by God.

In his sermon series, Azzarito first attacks the penal theory of atonement, that is, that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfies the justice of God. The understanding that Jesus is a substitute for the sinner who is under the wrath of God. Azzarito does this without ever talking about any of the other atonement theories. And he fails to acknowledge that the theories are ways of explaining the biblical text and they work together.  He wants to push one idea. That the EPC and evangelicals in general teach that God is mean and has a big hammer ready to smash the sinner, while the PC (U.S.A.) sees God as loving and inclusive.

This leaves out the Trinity—God is one—and God’s wrath is satisfied by God. It is the begotten God in the bosom of the Father who willingly receives the wrath and becomes the propitiation for our sins. (John 1:18 & 1 John 1:1)
God's wrath does not cancel God's love. According to biblical and reformed faith, God has chosen us before the foundation of the world. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him." (Eph. 1: 3-4)

And then there is that idea about being born again that Kerri writes about. That is, that being born again is not a standard biblical definition of salvation. And Azzarito has problems with salvation being a onetime event, a conversion that the Christian remembers with gladness.   But the biblical text describes salvation in many ways. It is being born again as Jesus explains in the third chapter of John. And Peter puts it this way, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven …”

It is Jesus knocking Paul off of his horse with a blinding light and Paul going back to the story over and over as he testifies to the gentiles. It is the first sermon preached on Pentecost when men from many faraway places ask Peter what they should do. And he says, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

But there is also that conversion that is a growth as one is raised in a Christian family with Christian teachers and pastors to guide. Paul speaks of this when writing to Timothy. “You however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

Azzarito’s idea that everyone is saved and that it is a lifetime process and the good news is to tell them so doesn’t fit the biblical text. While there are multiple pictures of God’s work in the life of a sinner, born again, born of the Spirit, being saved, Jesus as propitiation, it is always and ever Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that brings the sinner home. And it is the righteousness of Jesus that the Father sees, not our own broken sinful self. The contradiction, and yet the truth, is that although it is always God’s work, some will reject this great salvation.  Some will not come home to the Father.

I pray that those at University Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, while dwelling in the midst of Fremont, will find the truth that is the center of Christianity, Jesus Christ who is able to deliver completely and forever.  


Bob Azzarito said...

Thank you Viola for your blog post on our church and my sermons. Although you misunderstand much of my point of view, I appreciate you listening and commenting (for example, I am not a universalist). I can think of nothing more important and invigorating than theological discussion, even when there is some disagreement. I'd be happy to meet sometime and give you more background on my point of view. If not, I appreciate your thoughts and response.

Viola Larson said...

Bob, thanks for reading my post and leaving a comment. but let me ask you a question. Do you believe all will gain eternal life through Jesus Christ even those who believe in different gods?

Bob Azzarito said...

Hi Viola, Here is my question. Do you believe the Bible teaches that unless you correctly put your faith in Jesus Christ before you die, by confessing you sin, and asking him into your heart, you will spend eternity in hell?

Viola Larson said...

Bob, two things. I think in all fairness you should answer my question first. Secondly, what do you mean by "correctly"?

Bob Azzarito said...

Interesting response Viola. Why would you hesitate to agree with such a clear, straight forward evangelical belief? Doesn't the evangelical message say that one must come to faith in Christ before death or risk spending eternity in conscious torment in hell? This question and discussion is part of my answer to your question.

Viola Larson said...

Bob, I find it amazing that you have now refused to answer two questions that I have asked. I believe the Bible teaches that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ. And when I say salvation, I mean many things held together, reconciliation to God, forgiveness, given new life in Christ, being united to Jesus in his death and his resurrection. I believe we have now been given eternal life that can never be taken away from us.

Try John 10:27-"My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of my hand."

I believe that if we reject the great salvation offered to us we will spend eternity without God. and yet I believe it is the Father who draws us to the Son, and the Holy Spirit who illuminates his word giving us understanding.
I hope that all answers your question and I hope you will have enough integrity and honesty to answer my question. If not there is no more reason for discussion.

Bob Azzarito said...

Viola, It is way to early to already be questioning my honesty and integrity. I told you that I was answering you questions. For years I explained salvation just as you did. But it bothered me that I didn't have an adequate explanation for the 8 year old Jewish child killed in the Holocaust. As a young person when I asked that question, the answer I'd receive was simply, "We must trust God." That was a cop out. But no one seemed too concerned that we had a belief system that would require us to send this child to hell for all eternity. Now, I completely agree with everything you have said about salvation since they are mostly Bible quotes. First, I would suggest first that salvation is mostly about this life. Eternal life understood as a life free from guilt and shame, rather than a ticket we receive that lets us into heaven when we die. This emphasis creates a skewed way of viewing myself and others in the world. Our only difference in thinking is that evangelicals believe you must have this conversion experience before you die or else it is too late and you will go to hell. In my view, this idea changes everything about the meaning and practice of salvation. It also alters the way I view the church and the world. Hell, rather, is for anyone who does not wish to be in the presence of a loving God who accepts and receives everyone on the basis of his mercy and grace in Jesus. What Jesus did on the cross he did for all people of all cultures, religions and classes. No one is outside the loving action of God in Jesus Christ. If I persist in saying no to God's love, God will not force his love on me. If he did, it would not be love. But he will also not take it back for all eternity. And the same love and same appeal and the same cross reaches to me beyond the grave as it does before. So now you have my answer. But, speaking of integrity, I still don't have yours. Do you agree with this evangelical belief that if you do not make a decision for Christ before you die, you will be in hell for all eternity? And what do you think happens to the 8 year old Jewish child? Special provision? Or is that child being also tortured by God as she was in the concentration camp. At least in the camp, the torture was limited by her death.

Viola Larson said...

Bob, sorry, but it still sounds like you are talking about universalism. Let me ask it in a different way if I can. Are you saying that if a person dies without having Jesus as their savior they can still claim his gift after death?

Bob Azzarito said...

Yes. I am saying there is nothing in the Bible that would prevent someone from responding to the message of God's love in Jesus after death. But this is not universalism. At least not the classic definition. Classic universalism says there is no hell and everyone will go to heaven when they die. In other words, death is the end of choice. I do not believe that. So now that we have that cleared up, are you going to answer my question? Does the 8 year old Jewish boy go to hell for eternity because he didn't ask Jesus into his heart during his lifetime? Do you believe your eternal destiny is sealed as soon as you take your final breath in this life?

Viola Larson said...

Bob, I believe your question is basically about the justice of God.

(Sorry I had to wait through a plumber’s visit, dinner, and a great call from Molly one of my great granddaughters, before answering the question—but it also deserves a thoughtful answer.)

So first, you are setting up a scenario that is hard to answer without more context. But here is the best I can do.

Biblically we are told that we are all appointed to die and after that the judgment. And we know that God both loves and is just, in fact God’s judgment is a part of his love. But God in his love and his judgment works in ways we often do not know nor see. All that the thief on the cross did was acknowledge the innocence of Jesus, his Lordship and asked to be remembered and he was assured a place in heaven. All that Zaccheus did was climb down out of the tree when Jesus invited himself to lunch. His promise to give back what he had taken was undoubtedly a reaction to Jesus’ gracious invitation to eat lunch with him.

What I am saying is in the real world, not a hypothetical one, we often do not know what happens between the soul and Christ before the moment of death. That is why the answer you think is not a good answer is a good answer. “We must trust God.” Because the question really is about the trustworthiness of God. He will not do evil, so we leave it there trusting him.

But your question is bigger than that—you want it to cover those who have rejected Christ in this life, as an adult. The Bible does not give any room to that. In my last posting I put up a verse about that. Here it is:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. This is the Judgment that the Light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” (John 3:16-21)

Bob Azzarito said...

Thank you Viola for your response and I didn't mind getting in line behind your great granddaughter. A good choice on your part. My only comment is that I still believe that someone can respond with trust after death. I can think of no Scripture that would contradict this. Even if in this life, for whatever reason, they were not capable or willing to see or believe in this love. Since God's love never gives up or gives out, it would make sense that God wouldn't quit, even after death. I still do not accept the "trust God" answer about he young Jewish boy. I do not accept that this child is in hell simply because they did not know or hear. And if it is possible for God to save someone who never hears of Jesus, then clearly this is a possibility that can be extended to anyone, even those of another religion. But, it will be Jesus who saves, because he is the exact representation of God in every sense. In essence, it is God who saves, not Christianity, not a religion, because God was in Jesus, doing the work. So many other fun things to talk about but hard to do in this forum. Thanks for your thoughtful responses. We disagree on many things, but I respect anyone who takes theology seriously as you do. I continue to learn and grow, and I'm sure my journey is not over. God bless you Viola.


Charlene Call said...

Posted in 3 post: I looked online (not sure I could have worded it so elegantly) for a response as to God receiving a young child into heaven when they are to young to have an understanding as to sin, putting their faith in Christ and repentance, etc... Here is the post: If a baby, infant, young child, or toddler dies before they can know Jesus Christ, where do they go? We are all born into sin but can babies go into the presence of the Lord since Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved (Acts 4:12)? What does the Bible say is the fate of those young ones who die before they have had a chance to hear the gospel? What about those with severe mental retardation?
Born into Sin - All humans are born into sin at birth (Psalm 51:5). Even though they are incapable of understanding the gospel at birth, like every one of us, they too come into this world in a sinful state at birth and in fact, even in the womb (Psalm 58:3). Since we are born into a sinful state, what about the young child, toddler, infant or baby that dies before having a chance to place their faith in the only name given to us whereby we might be saved (Acts 4:12)?
In the first place, no one really seeks after God (Rom 3:11). There is not a person that has ever lived that is righteous or seeks after God on his or her own, with the exception of Jesus Christ Who is both Man and God (Rom 3:10-12). Our good works are not good enough to be saved, despite the perceived innocence of babies (Isaiah 64:6). Humans just naturally gravitate toward the tendency to sin because we were born this way. We inherited the sinful nature from the first man, Adam (Rom 5:12,16,18). We are constrained to be in a state of sinfulness until someone can be made sin for us. Fortunately, this happened through Christ Jesus because, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). So the good news is that there is hope, but it is hope only for those who can comprehend the gospel of Jesus Christ and His work at Calvary. Then where does this leave babies who die in infancy? Where do they go?
Do Babies Go To Heaven - What baby can know that they are in a sinful state and that they are separated from God by their sins?

Charlene Call said...

It is only through the blood of Jesus that anyone is saved, not through religion, etc...
John 3 (v.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. There is no salvation except through the blood of Jesus
3 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. ”9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. 10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.