Repentance: The Primary Preparation for Underground Church (Introduction to Preparing for the Underground Church, Part IV)

(Part IV of VII of Pastor Foley’s introductory essay to Rev. Richard Wurmbrand’s Preparing for the Underground Church. To order a print or electronic copy of the bilingual Korean/English edition of Preparing for the Underground Church, including Pastor Foley’s introductory essay and a foreword by Voice of the Martyrs historian Merv Knight, visit Amazon or click here to visit the bookstore page on our website. For Part I of Pastor Foley’s introductory essay , click here.)

This first step Rev. Wurmbrand outlines in Preparing for the Underground Church is not protecting our Christian way of life but rather repenting of our failure to live it ourselves. Before we seek to teach anyone anything about sex, before we protest the sinful self-creativity of others, we ourselves must repent, submitting our own self-created lives back to God for his redemption while learning what the fullness of the Christian tradition has always maintained about these things. Instead of working to define our identities we must take our hands off of ourselves and confess with the Apostle John, “What we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”[1]

Self-creation of all kinds is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. But in Christ there is no condemnation for our past complicity in the sexual revolution. Just as Rev. Wurmbrand emphasized that communists are not our enemies, co-conspirators in the sexual revolution are very much the subjects of God’s love. His love takes the form of light that enables each of us to see beyond ourselves, back to the loving embrace of our creator.

But before we attempt to bring this light to our fellow sexual revolutionaries, we must also repent of our clumsy efforts at remolding Christian theology after the fashion of our own experience. Christian theology has retained its fundamental shape for more than two millennia, even if at times the stewardship fell to the hands of a few. Just as we are not to re-sculpt ourselves, we are not to re-sculpt the faith we have inherited. As Methodist theologian Thomas Oden counseled, the tombstone of the theologian can bear no higher epitaph than, “He contributed nothing new to theology.”[2] With Vincent of Lérins we understand the calling of each Christian to entail the tenacious and costly care of and complete attentiveness to “that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.”[3]

This is vital, because among Christian advocates of the sexual revolution, words like “love” and “freedom” become chisels for the re-sculpting of our faith. But these words actually mean something very different in Christianity than they do in the world, and their meaning must be learned from the long tradition of Christian history and theology rather than imported from our comparatively brief postmodern experience.

In the historic Christian faith, “freedom” is not the removal of restraint, as freedom is typically desired in this present fallen age, but rather freedom from sin—or as Augustine would frame it, freedom from the “impediments” to that state of blessedness where we no longer even desire to sin.[4] It is a freedom that can only be understood in light of its “end state,” i.e., the “what we will be” of 1 John 3:2 that we can only know “in part” in this present life but which will become fully known to us when we stand in the presence of Christ. John Rist describes the classic Christian understanding of freedom, as well as its modern diminishment, like this:

[W]e are at all times free only to the degree to which we approximate to that blessed end-state. But remove Augustine’s end state and, if our desires for personal autonomy overbear Stoic resignation, our only option will be to aim for the highest attainable degree of freedom from any ‘inhibitions’. These will include moral factors—among them an obligation to procreate and educate a future generation—and also physical factors: we might, for example wish to be free of the limitation of being male or female.[5]

This understanding of freedom as freedom from sin is essential to helping us make sense of what otherwise seems like the very unlovely love of God.

In the historic Christian faith, God’s love is not a matter of affirmation, inclusion, or “good will”; instead, as David Schindler notes, it is something far more profound and in a different category altogether. God’s love is “the very stuff that makes our lives and the things of the world real, the basic order of our lives and of all things.” Or more specifically, it is “that [which] gives things their deepest and most proper order and meaning, always and everywhere.”[6] In a fallen world, God’s love manifests itself as the restoration of his gracious order. When Jesus famously tells Nicodemus in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” he is not saying that God is so crazy in love with us that he sent his son to die for us in a demonstration of how much. Rather, he is saying exactly what he says in John 3:17: “For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” God’s love means God’s right re-ordering (or setting right) of the fallen creation, so that the world does not become swallowed up by its own self-creation, and us along with it. He must set right our desires, which is why we first experience his love not as affirmation but rather as a most painful crucifixion of our flesh. This is because we are wrongly ordered and thus resist him. God’s love of us is not the love of a lover but rather the love of an enemy.

This is not the love we naturally desire. It makes us “joyful in the Lord not happy in our flesh.”[7] As one contemporary student of Rev. Wurmbrand notes, “Bro. Wurmbrand had great joy in that concentration camp, but his flesh was not happy, in fact his flesh was miserable the entire time.  His flesh suffered but his spirit soared.”[8] This is the paradox of God’s love: It is one of the most miserable things our flesh can encounter. God does not affirm what is good and right and true in us. Instead, according to Rev. 21:5, he “make[s] all things new.” As Showers notes, that includes the things we cannot imagine need remaking.

While many of our desires are actually good and most likely come from God, there is no part of our old nature that can remain – we must be completely remade in Christ… Even the “good” things must be brought down to the death of the cross and remade in the nature of Jesus… Our repulsive qualities – lying, swearing, partying, etc. must be removed and remade into something pleasing to Christ, like telling the truth, speaking with clean language, and spending our free time reading the Bible and praying, for example. But even the best human qualities fall far short of the nature of Jesus, so even our honesty, integrity, altruism, etc. must all be remade so we have the Lord’s honest, integrity, altruism.[9]

Jesus does not die to save us from his cross-shaped life. Instead, he saves us into it so that it becomes our life, too. It is the only way to his resurrection life. He does not free us for a life of self-sculpting which he then graciously affirms. Instead, he gives us his life to receive and live as our own, and to continually re-present to the world so that his right ordering is kept always in front of it.[10] The love we are called to offer to Christ in return is the love of choosing Christ over all things, including, most fundamentally, ourselves and our desires. Grace is not God’s acceptance of who we are but rather his victory over sin and death for anyone who entrusts themselves fully to his care.

This—the submission of our lesser loves to his greater love, not the submission of his greater love to our lesser loves—is embodied in the underground church around the world today, as it has been in the underground church throughout history. From this church we can—and should—learn much. The underground church is the counterpoint to the sexual revolution. The sexual revolution sacrifices the glory of God in order to uphold its vital energy. The underground church sacrifices its vital energy in order to uphold the glory of God. As Stephen Adubato notes, “Their witness…  provokes us to ask: could it truly be possible for modern men and women to live their lives devoted to Something other than themselves?”[11]

[1] 1 John 3:2, NIV.

[2] Kate Shellnut, 2016. “Died: Thomas Oden, Methodist Theologian Who Found Classic Christianity.” Christianity Today. http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/december/died-thomas-oden-methodist-theologian-who-found-classical.html.

[3] Vincent of Lérins. Commonitory ch. II, §6; NPNF Series II Vol. XI p. 132.

[4] John M. Rist, 2014. Augustine Deformed: Love, Sin, and Freedom in the Western Moral Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 9.

[5] John M. Rist, 2014. Augustine Deformed: Love, Sin, and Freedom in the Western Moral Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 9.

[6] David L. Schindler. 2001. Ordering Love: Liberal Societies and the Memory of God. New York: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. Loc. 25-35.

[7] CDP. 2012. “To Be Led By God or Not.” Finding the Ancient Path. https://outpostpilgrim.wordpress.com/tag/richard-wurmbrand/

[8] Ibid.

[9] April Showers, 2011. “Galatians 5:17… meaning??” Talk Jesus. http://www.talkjesus.com/threads/galatians-5-17-meaning.35687/.

[10] Ephraim Radner. 2016. A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, Loc. 55.

[11] Stephen Adubato, 2016. “A Revolutionary Attraction.” Homiletic and Pastoral Review. http://www.hprweb.com/2016/06/a-revolutionary-attraction/.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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