How many of you have had the experience of sitting through an evangelistic service at your church? You heard the Gospel preached clearly, but it wasn’t being preached to you; it was being preached to non-Christian visitors at your church. You sat through this and thought to yourself, “If only I were an unbeliever right now, so that this could apply to me.”
Or maybe some of you have left the Christian faith altogether. You grew up in church hearing all sorts of moral exhortations and came to believe that Christianity was a religion for good people. Then you hit adolescence and your hormones went crazy. Or you went off to college and made way too many Walks of Shame. Or you got into a career in an industry where you have to do all sorts of questionable things to get ahead and/or to survive. Or you made bad choices in life and wound up divorced, bankrupt, or worse. Or life just happened and you got beaten down by all the frustrations and struggles of living with broken people in a broken world. You came to a place where you said to yourself something along these lines: “I know what’s going on inside of me. If Christianity is for good people, then I certainly don’t make the cut. Better to have some happiness in this life and then be damned, than to keep trying, to keep banging my head against that wall, in a project where I know I am going to fail no matter what I do, and then be damned anyway. I can’t do this anymore. I quit.”
Good news. The Gospel is for you.
Whether Christian or not, we all have the same basic problems. We are all beaten up and beaten down by the challenges, struggles, pains, exhaustions, and frustrations that go along with living in a broken world. And we are exhausted. Not because we are too busy from living in our modern world, though that is part of it. Our exhaustion goes much deeper than that. It is because we are addicted to self-salvation. Meaning that we need to make a good name for ourselves, move ahead in our careers, marry the right person, get into the right schools, have the right friends, raise kids who turn out the right way, etc. Why? Because we approach life needing to succeed. To fail is to die. Success equals life. In a performance-driven world, we are performance-driven people.
God’s grace alone is the cure for our exhaustion. Because Jesus has won, we can lose and it won’t hurt anything. Because Jesus succeeded, we are free to fail. Because Jesus was extraordinary, it is OK for us to be ordinary. We don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter. We don’t even need anything from God. Why? Because we already have everything we need in Christ Jesus.
To use a label that is more familiar to those of you inside the Christian faith: We are all sinners. This label applies whether you are Christian or not. People who completely sucked at living the Christian life will get to heaven and think, “Really? You mean it really was that simple?” C. S. Lewis said that there will be lots of surprises at the Eschaton. Cult members, prostitutes, pimps, johns, drug dealers, deadbeat dads, sex traffickers, and murderers will all be there because they died believing that Jesus Christ was their only possible hope.
But this is lost on many of us. In much of evangelicalism, the paradigm is that the Gospel gets you into the kingdom, so that when you die you will go to heaven. But what now? There is an awful lot of life to be lived between the time you accept Jesus Christ and the time you die. (Unless, as Lewis Grizzard would have said, you go out on 285 and get run over by a semi hauling hogs.)
Enter the Law.
In some churches it is excruciatingly overt. Don’t drink. Don’t smoke. Don’t cuss. Don’t wear tattoos. Don’t listen to rock music. You get the idea. But in the vast majority of evangelical churches it is nothing like this. Instead it is more along the lines of “Seven principles to resisting temptation” or “Eight principles to making wise choices” or “Ten steps to a happy marriage” or “Biblical financial management” or “How to raise drug-free kids”. The overarching emphasis is: Are you reading the Bible every day? Are you having your quiet time every day? Are you running away from certain things and running toward certain other things?
The demand of the Law to “Be perfect” gets dumbed down to “Try hard”. God’s grace is there to make up the difference. You won’t get it right all the time, but as long as you’re making progress and showing improvement, that is good enough. Thus the Christian life is not about substitution but about transformation. Not about what God has done for you but about what you are doing for God.
This may sound vaguely familiar to those of you who grew up in the Catholic faith. In Aquinas’s view, which has come to influence much popular Catholic belief and official Catholic teaching, justification is a gradual transformation from unjust to just. The grace of God is an infused power which enables you to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and thereby move yourself from ungodly to righteous. This will manifest itself through progressively fewer and fewer sins.
Catholicism by the time of the Reformation had evolved into a massive self-salvation project. Though the Council of Orange (529 AD) condemned both Pelagianism (“I can save myself”) and semi-Pelagianism (“I can, with God’s help, save myself”), semi-Pelagianism had become the order of the day. It had gotten to the point where they were inventing good works for people to do to move forward in justification as they saw it: relics, pilgrimages, and indulgences. If you grew up Catholic, you know about these things.
And that is precisely where we are in evangelicalism today. The only difference is that instead of relics, pilgrimages, and indulgences, we have: “Dream big!” “Have big faith!” “Change the world!” And while we’re off dreaming big dreams, having big faith, and devising big schemes to change the world, we neglect and even despise the good works which God has in fact set us to do: be good parents, faithful spouses, hard-working employees, etc.
How does this work out in the life of the individual believer?
You start out believing that you are freely saved and justified in Jesus Christ. God, for no reason having anything to do with anything in you but entirely in His own pleasure and for His own purposes, has justified you, forgiven your sin, adopted you as His son/daughter, given you the Holy Spirit, and much much more. Scripture promises this.
Commands like “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” seem doable now that you are properly equipped. Paul said “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” So while you may have had at least a modicum of excuse for failure while you were still a pagan, that is no longer true. Now you are part of God’s family, and recipient of thousands upon thousands of His free gifts.
But then you notice that sin is still a part of your life. Old sinful habits, thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors refuse to go away no matter what you do or how hard you try. You begin to suspect that things aren’t working out as they ought, and therefore, that you might not really be saved. Because if you were, this thing would work. You would be resisting temptation and living the victorious life. Maybe you need to be “born again” again.
In many evangelical churches you would be told that this suspicion of yours is true. It would be recommended that you try going to such-and-such meeting or conference. Accept Christ again. Rededicate your life. Surrender again. Sign the card. Walk the aisle again. And on and on it goes, in a vicious circle, until you finally just give up.
That’s if you’re honest. If you’re less than fully honest with yourself, you will stay in the game but you will begin to deceive yourself about some things. You will think that you are doing better than you really are, and you will become blind to your true condition.
So what is the solution? It is to recognize that the whole idea of moving beyond the Gospel is just a myth. The Gospel is not simply the ABC of the Christian life, it is the A to Z of the Christian life. The Gospel is what gets you into the kingdom, and it is what keeps you there. You will never achieve transformation in your life, certainly not of your own efforts. You will never win the victory over sin or death in your own life. But Christ has, and that is all that matters.
Christ is enough for me
Christ is enough for me
Everything I am is in You
Everything I need is in You
We sing this in church frequently these days. Would that we could believe it.