It seems a mark of this present age to be one that is perplexing, contradictory and even flat-out false. The Church seems no less vulnerable than the world to such confusion and befuddlement. The more time marches on the more it seems naïve to think the Church has even been clear about the mission charged Her. And in the time and place I occupy, I find it difficult to begrudge anyone who listens to the myriad of competing and often contradicting Christian messages and is sufficiently confused. Perhaps that is because I used to be one of them, and, in some ways, I still am. In a manner of speaking, I tend to think of myself as one who still has “one foot outside the Church and in the world.” I won’t insult the discerning ear which understands such a comment, but I will say that I have always found much comfort in John Calvin’s assertion that every last one of us goes to his death with an unbeliever residing within. While I hope and work for it to be quite foreign to my own covenant children, I can say I know what it is like to be peering in from the outside, trying to make sense of Christianity even as it seems to be a house divided. Moreover, to my lights, it seems that wisdom teaches there is much benefit to recalling what that is like and that I should hope to never forget it.
When it comes to the message of those who would champion the project of Christianity—Christians and the Gospel—I think one of the muddiest places is in our apprehension of the pieces necessary to make sense of the whole thing: Law and Gospel. It is one thing to misunderstand a set of directions getting from point A to point B on a map. It is quite another to misapprehend the Gospel.
“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life; let go and let God; just as I am, without one plea; God loves the sinner but hates the sin.” Unless one sits in a box all day, these are very familiar phrases amongst the rank and file. A secular equivalent to this Christianese is something like, “We’re only human; nobody is perfect.” Beyond the obvious tacky form, their substance is quite bothersome to my understanding of the Reformation’s tradition because subsuming beneath such sentiments are two ideas: first, we are constitutional and practical failures (which is correct). But secondly, and this most importantly as it interprets and concludes upon the first truism: this failure should merely be winked at and any serious expectation is to be relaxed in light of this. In other words, so what? Relax. Whether expressed in sacred or secular nomenclature, it is as if we imagine the Host of Heaven reaching down and patting our innocent little heads for giving it the proverbial college try. Adding insult to injury we know that all the while we even withheld the greatest of intentions.
It has been said that the reason the wider Evangelical world is so taken with the therapeutic is that the theology embraced causes so much narcissism and neurosis. That is, the “Just-As-I-Am” syndrome that produces the above Christianity-light sentiments skirts the categories of law, guilt, wrath, sin and judgment and is simply a glorified system of denial. And what rushes in to fill the void left by theological denial is theological coddling. Even more simply stated, we all naturally know something is lethally wrong but are told there isn’t. Talk about “binding up My people’s wounds as if they weren’t serious.”
The problem in these theologies is that, biblically speaking, God is not, in point of fact, satisfied with and then compliant to imperfect sinners who give it their best shot—especially when done under a thinly veiled pretense. It just isn’t good enough to be imperfect sinners. Contrary to these sentiments, we “must be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect.” We were born to be as much. Yet, we measure up to God the way a broom holds back tidal waves; our differences are not as light-red is to orange but as black is to white. We are constitutionally children of wrath. Yes, even lovable little babies are as culpable and subject to the sentence of death as any mid-twentieth century tyrant (which seems to shed new light on all the effete and feminized lingo of “innocence” laced throughout much of the modern pro-life movement). The Most High is not satisfied with us “just as we are.” In fact, that seems to be the whole point. He is, however, satisfied with Jesus Christ just as He is. And as long as we are grafted into Christ alone by grace alone and through faith alone, having union in Him by the Holy Spirit and in the fellowship of His Church, we are considered to be just like Him. Thus we can confidently say that God is forensically satisfied with us, as He actually is with Jesus.
There is, therefore, a vast difference between “just as I am, without one plea,” and “fleeing to Christ as a desperate sinner.” The former entreats us to be comfortable with ourselves instead of confident in God, namely Christ. One is at relative ease with sin, while the other is haunted and disturbed by it and wants it hidden from God. Additionally, one understands the concept of mediation, while the other sees it as cumbersome. Despite that phrase being thrown about so carelessly these days and one that seems to ride in tandem with Just-As-I-Am theology, one is hard-pressed to see how any of it is really “Christ-centered.” In fact, Just-As-I-Am is quite sinner-centered; it is about us. This false gospel seeks to engender an unmediated and quite unwarranted coziness. It easily forgets that God is “a consuming fire” and that being unduly close to God is in reality the polar opposite of what sinners should seek. The God of the New Testament is the same one from the Old. Knowing our frame and remembering that we are but dust, the latter contains a book like Leviticus which continually depicts God graciously going out of His way to set up mediation between Himself and sinners, lest they die. Like paper in fire, His holiness and their sinfulness simply cannot co-exist without dire consequences for those who have provoked Him to His face. But listen to our age’s folksy and casual gospels long enough—as captured in Just-As-I-Am theologies—and it becomes clear that the mediation of Christ increasingly gives way to spiritual coziness, and sinners become eerily comfortable not only within themselves but also with God’s company.
Almost instinctively we know to steer clear of the so-called “health and wealth” gospels electrified over television and radio waves by gaudy comb-overs and relentless charisma. But turn the decibels down a few notches, and the principles of prosperity can be located even in our own sophisticated, subdued and seemingly measured circles as well. While some may be about the business of translating abundance into more tangible and materialistic gain, others quest for more intangible and immaterial things: comfort and ease with ourselves and God. This “gospel of gospel” flows from that strange modern trinity of “happy, healthy and whole.” From my observation, this seems to produce disciples that, to greater or lesser degrees, seem less able to take responsibility for their lives, their words and actions; they have little to no sense of self-transcendence and relative inability to soberly examine themselves and their world. One gets the distinct sense in so much preaching, teaching and general piety that broad Evangelicals—and those influenced by them—seem to think their chief problem is their own lives, not the holiness of God. Putting my unbeliever cap on, I think I can speak fairly confidently on behalf of many outside the faith who observe such piety and conclude that if the God they claim produces such shallowness then He is not worth serious obedience, since serious obedience is surely not the thing produced in the lives of those who seem much too close for comfort with God. And, in case anyone is keeping score, mere moralism or feigned religiosity is no substitute and just plain doesn’t count.
In the next entry, I would like to think about the antithesis to the gospel of gospel (or Just-As-I-Am syndrome) which, for better or worse, might be called the gospel of law (or worm theology). Where the former coddles sinners, the latter brutalizes them. Where one wants us to be unendingly comfortable with ourselves to the point of narcissism, the other is so supremely discomforted to the point of neurosis. Where one is the poor man’s version of the doctrine of love, the other is the five-and-dime version of the doctrine of sin. But what they both have in common is that they are sinner-centered, despite in-house lingo about being “Christ-centered.”