How to be as Free as a North Korean Underground Christian

To watch other Voice of the Martyrs videos, visit the Voice of the Martyrs Video Page!

 

John 8:31-36

A little over a hundred years ago, Pyongyang was the site of a revival so large that Pyongyang came to be known as the Jerusalem of the East. The revival came in January 1907 during a prayer meeting at what was then the largest church in Korea, the First Church of Pyongyang.

William Blair, a missionary who was at that prayer meeting, said,

The prayer sounded to me like the falling of many waters, an ocean of prayer beating against God’s throne.

Today the “ocean of prayer” has become a tiny underground stream. Pyongyang is no longer known as the Jerusalem of the East. Instead, it’s infamous as the leading persecutor of Christians on the planet.

But the truth is, a hundred years after the Pyongyang Revival, North Korea is still the most religious place on earth. It’s just that the religion has changed—from Christianity to Juche.

Want to know how? Watch this week’s video to find out.

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The Covenant Renewal Service Story: Why one American clergy couple meets every morning under the Jeongneung Underpass to read and record the sermons of the early Korean Christians

When I first met my future wife, I could tell that she liked me but that for her marrying a non-Korean was simply out of the question—just not practical, she said. So I set about seeking to convince her that if she married me she would not need to become any less Korean.

This was actually an easy pledge for me, since from the day I met her I had begun to read everything I could find about Korea, and I found it all fascinating. I began eating only Korean food, and I found it all delicious—plus I lost a lot of weight and became healthier. None of it seemed like a sacrifice to me. I was being personally enriched.

After we married, I was the one who actually coaxed my wife into serving Korea together. I drove my wife crazy by practicing traditional Korean dance overnight in our garage so that I could accompany her in her performances, despite my lack of natural talent. I took on part-time jobs as an English Ministry pastor at several tiny Korean American churches, even though I had consulted for more than 1,500 ministries and denominations around the world and had served as senior pastor of much larger American churches and ministries. I felt I had so much to learn from Korea, and I was willing to receive that learning in whatever way I could.

But I quickly became surprised that Koreans themselves often did not share my high value of their culture or history or even their basic existence. One glimpse of the Seoul skyline shows a deep truth about contemporary Korean culture: Koreans do not like old things. They are always tearing down modestly aged buildings and replacing them with new buildings. They regard themselves in the same way. It is as if they consider it an unquestionable truth that they are born ugly, and they must correct these natural deficiencies through plastic surgery at earlier and earlier ages and in more and more invasive ways. Even gray hair is difficult for Koreans, unless it is chosen by the young as a trendy style option.

The phenomenon is even more pronounced among Korean Christians. There is little emphasis placed on receiving and living out their lives as gifts from God. Particularity and difference are weaknesses to be eliminated; resemblance to something popular, or great, or successful is always to be sought. The imitation is apparent in the form of contemporary South Korean Christianity. In no other place outside of America do church buildings look more American than in South Korea. In no other place outside of America do pastors dress more American than in South Korea. Or, at least, how American churches used to look and how American pastors used to dress.

And the South Korean pastors I met early in our marriage worried whether it was time to update the look. Membership in the South Korean church had been in decline since 1991, so South Korean pastors were traveling around the world seeking new ways to bring about revival or renewal. My wife and I would host large groups of these South Korean pastors in our home when they visited the US. They wanted to meet with me because of my relationships with many of the top ministry leaders in the US. I was happy to introduce them.

But as time went on, I was struck that solutions to the problems these Korean pastors were describing could not come from listening to successful American pastors. Spiritually, I believe God has ordained that solutions to the serious problems of today’s Korean church—and today’s divided Korea—can only come by our humbly listening together to the faithful Christians of the early Korean church. These early Korean Christians faced much bigger problems in far more difficult circumstances in their time and, as a result, came to know the character of God in ways that few others in Christian history have. They accepted their lives, their culture, their language, their alphabet, and even their ability to suffer as gifts from God to be placed at his disposal, not as raw material to be discarded or reshaped the way they saw fit.

In fact, I would contend that many of the problems the South Korean church faces today came as a result of South Korean Christians setting aside the hard-won “gold refined in the fire” of the early Korean Christians and replacing it with the new theological baubles and trinkets offered by American Christians in the aftermath of the Korean War. The mega-buildings and great grandeur and “beautiful Christianity” of today’s South Korean church are not the fulfillment of the vision of early Korean Christians, but rather the forgetting. And now, modern South Korean Christianity, no matter how beautiful it may yet appear in places, is tarnished and crumbling from the inside. Much of it will simply cease to exist in our generation. Most South Korean pastors remain in denial about the steep decline of the South Korean church. Others continue to look abroad for answers.

But answers are not to be found by looking abroad for something Korean Christians haven’t yet learned but by giving a new hearing to something Korean Christians once knew but have since forgotten. My wife and I have learned that one of the best places we can hear what early Korean Christians knew is from underground Christians in North Korea and in other closed countries around the world. As we have served these believers for the past fifteen years, we have seen how their lives continue to reflect the beliefs and practices of early Korean Christians far more than contemporary South Korean Christianity does. That is because believers in North Korea and other closed countries do not become Christian in order to become successful or comfortable in the world. Instead, they became Christian in order to die to the world and live for the truth, which is what the word “martyr” means. And long before the earliest Korean Christians, the first Christians defined discipleship as “training for the heavenly contest”—that is, preparing themselves in body, soul, and spirit to live out Christ’s suffering love to the world. They talked of three kinds of martyrdom, distinguished by color. Green martyrdom meant dying to self: Not my will, but thy will be done. White martyrdom meant dying to the world: He who does the will of the Father is my mother and my brother. And red martyrdom—laying down our lives in a bloody instant in witness to Christ—differs from green and white martyrdom only in degree, not in kind.

The early Korean Christians may not have known the colors of martyrdom, but they knew that death to self and death to the world are required of all Christians as the first steps into the kingdom of God. In countries where that is still true for Christians, the church is growing. In the places where that truth has been set aside or spiritualized, the church is in decline. So it should not surprise us that Christianity is growing in North Korea as rapidly as it is declining in South Korea. But it may surprise us that underground Christians in North Korea and the rest of the world, focused on martyrdom, are much more joyful than Christians in South Korea, who are often focused on furthering their own happiness.

My wife and I founded our ministry, Voice of the Martyrs Korea, to help South Korean Christians learn green and white martyrdom from underground Christians in North Korea and around the world. Now, the Lord is leading us to help South Korean Christians learn green and white martyrdom from the earliest Korean Christians as well.

My thought is this: If South Korean pastors are willing to look to American Christians for solutions to church decline, then I, as an American Christian, will answer them in the voice of their forebears—the voice of the green, white, and red martyrs of the early Korean church: Kim Kyo Shin, An Chang Ho, Cho Man Sik, Ju Gi Chol, Son Yang Won, Han Sang Dong, Kim Chi Seon, Lee Seong Bong, Gil Seon Ju, Kim Ik Du, Yi Yong Do, Kim Chung Choon, and Namgung Eok. Daily I will bring their words up off of the pages of the dusty history books and faded photographs and let their voice be heard, broadcasting them via satellite, AM, shortwave, and social media, to Koreans in the North, the South, Northeast China, Southeast Russia, and the Diaspora. Though I am still learning the Korean language, my wife, now also a pastor, has pledged to help me preach these daily messages. And I pray that in time other Korean Christians will help us bring the “voice of the martyrs” to life as well, by volunteering with us to research, record, broadcast, and distribute their words so that not only the whole Korean church but all Koreans everywhere can hear and meditate upon them every day.

That is our goal: That the voices of these martyrs be heard again daily, shaping our daily conversations, restoring true Korean Christianity, renewing the church, and changing our country as well.

I knew the form this daily “voice of the martyrs” message sharing needed to take: a covenant renewal service. This is a special kind of worship service that John Wesley conducted once a year, usually at New Year’s, for Christians to remember the covenant they made with the Lord at baptism, and to renew that covenant through the Lord’s Supper. But the covenant renewal service is not only a Wesleyan service. Growing numbers of Reformed churches are recognizing that all Christian worship is covenant renewal worship, and they are structuring their weekly worship services accordingly.

In our daily Voice of the Martyrs covenant renewal service, we do the following:

First, we remember the covenant with the Lord that we made at our baptism. It is a covenant to die daily to ourselves and to the world. We are to live each day of our Christian life as green and white martyrs. We are to use our bodies, not just our money or our prayers, as our primary tool for sharing the Lord’s suffering love in our sphere of influence.

Second, we hear the scripture and a sermon from one of the early Korean Christian martyrs. No introduction or commentary or historical notes or provided. In this way, we do not encounter the voice of the martyr as a historical curiosity but instead as a living word, used by God to speak to what we are facing today.

Finally, we take the Lord’s Supper together, remembering that our primary identity is as a member of the body of Christ in the one holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. The martyrs are present with us at the Lord’s table. They are not dead and gone. Daily we renew our covenant to be one body with them in Christ. This means that we are accountable not only to ourselves and the Lord and our local church, but to them as well. The Korean church does not belong to us. We belong to it. It is not ours to define or change to suit our times or tastes. We are accountable to all the Korean Christians who have gone before us, and to those who will follow us. Most particularly, we are accountable to the early Korean Christian martyrs to faithfully receive and pass on to others what they faithfully received and passed on to us.

People may find it surprising that we do all of this under an underpass in Jeongneung at 6AM, but there’s a very important reason why. The location is the very spot where the great early Korean Christian teacher Kim Kyo Shin cried out every morning for his beloved Korea. At that time the space was a broad, flat rock, surrounded by towering sheer vertical faces of rock, fed by a waterfall and graced by a pure mountain stream. Kim Kyo Shin would pray there every morning, through the snow, the rain, the cold temperatures, and the marvelous thaw of spring.

Today the area is far less scenic—a monument to Korea’s economic might and its restless culture, on the move every hour. Cars roar overhead, buses and trucks rumble past ceaselessly, day and night. It would appear that Kim Kyo Shin’s prayers have been silenced, his cry for Korea denied, his vision ground to nothing beneath that soaring concrete edifice.

But appearances can be deceiving. The Bible tells us that that overpass is far less permanent than we can imagine, and that Kim Kyo Shin’s voice—and the voice of all the Korean martyrs, and all the Christian martyrs around the world—will endure forever. God will make sure of it.

The world and its desires pass away,
but whoever does the will of God lives forever.
–1 John 2:17

 

You can participate in the daily covenant renewal service under the underpass in Jeongneung every Tuesday through Friday at 6AM beginning November 22, or by accessing the service through Facebook, YouTube, satellite, AM, shortwave, or Internet radio. You can also help to research, record, and broadcast the messages of the early Korean Christians. For more information, contact [email protected]

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What Does “Saved By Grace Through Faith” Mean To Underground Christians? A Final Excerpt From Living in the Underground Church

We have now reached the end of our proposed methodology for taking up the Bible in a way that takes us underground. What may we conclude on the basis of this proposed liturgy for life in the underground church?

Specifically, this: That we are saved by grace through faith.

That phrase is typically used as an introduction to the Christian life. And yet, what our proposed methodology enables us to see is that it is also the conclusion of the Christian life, along with its midpoint, length, breadth, and moment-by-moment unfolding. Salvation is more than a juridical pronouncement of the Triune God. It is the lived, daily experience through which the church is constituted and by which it is defined. The church, in other words, is the assembly of those who are being saved by grace through faith.

Grace is not the pronouncement of God, the love of God, the forgiveness of God, or some orientation of God toward us. In the words of Karl Rahner, grace is God’s “self-communication”: the fullness of God’s own self, given to us. George Vandervelde, elaborating on Rahner’s definition, writes,

In grace God does not merely do something, effect something, outside the divine being. Rather God bestows God’s very self to human beings. God gives God’s self as God, i.e. as infinite being. God gives the very reality, the inner, divine, Trinitarian life. God bestows the internal essence of divine being upon human beings. In keeping with this conception of grace as the communication of God’s own being, Rahner insists that God’s self communication is an ontological process.[1]

To say it is an ontological process is to say that it is something that actually happens in us (i.e., God enters us) rather than simply something that happens about us (i.e., God pronounces us righteous). As Jesus says in Revelation 3:20, he comes to make his home in us. Or as Jesus says in John 15:4, “Abide in me, and I in you.”[2]

His home in us, his abiding in us, unites us with all those of all time and all places in whom he abides. The communion of saints is his living temple.[3] This is why Scripture does not say that in consummation of all things God will be the all in each but rather the all in all.[4] In this we do not lose our individuality, as if we were subsumed into some universal collective. Instead, as Rahner notes, we only become fully human and fully ourselves when he self-communicates to us, i.e., when he abides in us. Only then are we able to give ourselves fully to him and to each other.[5]

Faith is our trust that God will be, in us, who he has always and everywhere been, that he will do, in us, what he has always and everywhere done. Faith cannot be that God will in the end forgive us for living in a constant posture of mistrust toward him. As Jesus notes in the parable of the talents, if you believe God to be a hard master, then you had better at least live like it and do your best to ameliorate the punishment you are expecting. Such a one can expect punishment, not forgiveness.[6]

Salvation by grace through faith is thus anything but an assurance that thanks to Jesus, no matter what you think of God and others and no matter how you act toward God and others, everything in the end will turn out alright for you. Instead, salvation by grace through faith is a whole life offering of the kind described in Chapter 6: humanly incomprehensible and desperately, dangerously incomplete in and of itself, requiring God to do what he has promised to do in order for any part of it—any part of it—to endure to eternal life. Salvation by grace through faith means that every aspect of our life relies upon the Triune God to act as the Triune God always has, only this time inside of us; and it means that our fate is now eternally conjoined with those in every age and place who are completely reliant on that same thing.

In 1 Corinthians 11:1, the Apostle Paul says, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”[7] This sometimes makes us uncomfortable because it sounds like anything except salvation by grace. But this is only because we are not careful students of Scripture. Christ’s defining characteristic is his absolute dependence on his father. In John 5:19, Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

Jesus does not strive to be perfect, or personally complete. He simply trusts his father. He acts in the faith that his father will be who his father says he is, and that his father will act as his father has said he will act. Thus, when we say we are saved by grace through faith, we are indeed called to follow Christ in this, and Paul, and the entire “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 11. What all these have in common is the incomprehensibility and incompleteness of their actions from a human perspective. Or as the writer of Hebrews puts it in the great chapter on faith, Hebrews 11:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.[8]

As we follow Christ, and as we follow Paul following Christ, we become, with the great cloud of witnesses, foreigners and strangers on earth. This is not because Christ is leading us out of and away from the places where we live, though he may do that. Instead, it is because he is leading us into a way of life that makes us foreigners and strangers, often even in our homes. As Psalm 69:8 says, “I am a foreigner to my own family, a stranger to my own mother’s children.”[9] Yet Jesus adds in Matthew 12:50 that those of every age and place who live in absolute dependence on the Father have become his mothers and brothers, and thus ours as well. This is the life of the underground Christian. It is how taking up the Bible leads us underground, in the way we have been using the term in these three volumes; namely, not into hiding but rather into non-reliance on the systems and structures from which we have, by Christ, been made strangers.

We began this volume, in Chapter 1, with the recognition that the sacrament of baptism initiates our journey as strangers to the world. We conclude this volume with the recognition that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper feeds us on that journey underground. There is much more to note about the Lord’s Supper than the present subject permits, but we do well to note at least this: Just as Israel ate the bread of haste in its departure from Egypt,[10] so also we are given the bread of Christ’s body to sustain us in our exodus. Good Christians disagree on how and in what way his body is given to us in the Supper. But what is clear from Scripture is that we cannot be sustained in the moment-by-moment life of salvation by grace through faith simply by means of the juridical pronouncement of God, or by the love of God, or by the forgiveness of God, or by some orientation of God toward us, or by anything God might do outside himself and outside of us. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” says Christ in John 6:53, “you have no life in you.”

You cannot, in other words, receive only his love or his forgiveness or his juridical pronouncement. You must receive all of him. When you receive him, he continues to act as he has always acted, only now inside of you, with you joined together with those of every age and place who have longed for this very thing, in accordance with the Scriptures.

 

[1] G. Vandervelde, 1998, “The Grammar of Grace: Karl Rahner as a Watershed in Contemporary Theology,” Theological Studies, 49(8):445-459, p. 446.

[2] John 15:4, ESV.

[3] Cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19, Ephesians 2:21-22, 1 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 3:6.

[4] Cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28.

[5] G. Vandervelde, 1998, p. 447.

[6] Cf. Matthew 25:24-30.

[7] 1 Corinthians 11:1, NIV.

[8] Hebrews 11:13-16, NIV.

[9] Psalm 69:8, NIV.

[10] Cf. Deuteronomy 16:3.

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