The gospel of gospel: Just-As-I-Am Syndrome

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.”

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17 Responses to The gospel of gospel: Just-As-I-Am Syndrome

  1. Zrim:

    Very well put! I’ve been getting into Reformed doctrine only over the past five years or so, and recently I’ve been having to come to grips with the reality of my sin. Sure, in the past I’ve paid lip service to Paul’s exhortation not to “continue in sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1 ESV), but I often assumed that God was automatically pleased with me in a general since merely because I had historically been a member of His family.

    The necessity of facing up to sin, and of being mortally ashamed of it at all times, is important. The panel of the White Horse Inn stated this very well near the end of the recent episode titled “Happy Clappy Worship.” I’ll have to re-listen for the exact quote, though…

  2. Zrim says:

    Auggie,

    I have found that I have never come to grips with it…seems an ongoing thing. Just when I think I have a grip on it I prove myself quite wrong.

  3. Yes, I agree (note the present-tense “having” in my first comment)…

  4. Here’s that quote. It’s not exactly what I was recalling, but it’s close:

    Faith in Christ is able to endure doubts—it’s able to endure temptations—because it faces [them], not because it pretends [they’re] not there.

    In the context of the current discussion, I’d say that much of the self-focused theology of our day is there because people are afraid to look at their sin in the light of God’s righteousness. However, by virtue of true faith in Christ, we are able to confront the depth of our weaknesses and failings instead of trying to sweep them under the rug.

  5. Pingback: The Difference Between “Just As I Am” and the Gospel « Heidelblog

  6. Zrim says:

    Auggie,

    Thanks for the quote.

    Key word: endure. Notice it is not “overcome” or some other such triumphalistic, power language. This comports nicely with my post about how CRO lets us be human, etc.

    I love ordinary language like “endure, trod, pilgrimage, etc.”

  7. John Bugay says:

    Zrim, thanks: johnbugay at gmail dot com .

  8. Danny says:

    I agree with your sentiments, though I’m saddened that you use the hymn “Just As I Am” as a mentality which the hymn itself does not convey. The hymn is meant to convey how we come to Christ in faith. We come only based on his blood shed for us, and upon nothing else.

    I am staunchly reformed and I must admit that this hymn has been unnecessarily maligned in our circles. If one really reads the hymn one will find that it is a constant call to turn to Christ in a variety of circumstances, not a call to sloppy Christianity.

  9. RubeRad says:

    I wanted to make the same point, but Danny got here first. It may well be that “Just As I Am” is an evangelical refrain that has taken the meaning “God loves you, you wascally sinner, warts and all!”, but if you read the actual lyrics, you will see that quite a different point is made. Today’s evangelical would call on the sinner to “make the first move” toward God.

    But we understand that there is no amount of cleaning ourselves up that will make us presentable for our audience before “the man upstairs.” And so

    Just as I am, without one plea,
    But that Thy blood was shed for me,
    And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    That’s Calvinism, right there.

    And you make a good argument, but maybe you can pick on a different hymn.

  10. RubeRad says:

    There is, therefore, a vast difference between “just as I am, without one plea,” and “fleeing to Christ as a desperate sinner.”

    To make the same point yet a third time, you are apparently reading “Just as I am, without one plea” as “Just as I am, and no apologies necessary!”, whereas the context makes it clear that it means “Just as I am, I have no excuse” — which is the same as “fleeing to Christ as a desperate sinner”: v2,4:

    Just as I am, and waiting not
    To rid my soul of one dark blot,
    To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
    Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
    Yea, all I need in Thee to find,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

  11. Zrim says:

    Interesting points, guys.

    I suppose that the hymn is so associated with a revivalist context I tend to have little incentive to fight for its credibility. To be honest, there may be something to be said for “context” of a thing over against a pure examination of it. In other words, does it not count for something that the hymn is a revivalist battle-cry? If it is so Calvinististic, why does feature at every Graham crusade (you know, the guy whose own institution has a great big icon of Finney “overseeing” the hallway)? Something tells me that the hymn fits nicely with a time and place such as ours that is more comfortable with itself and perceives God as a cosmic pal, etc. than because it is seeking reconciliation, etc. Of course, that is my subjective and intuitive sense of it.

    That aside, my main point was to use the phrase to more to help make a point than impugn anything. Honestly.

  12. RubeRad says:

    I believe you.

    And yes, sometimes something orthodox (but uninspired) may be too far gone (misunderstood, abused, contextually redefined) to be worth the effort to reclaim or restore. How about the term “Evangelical“?

  13. Zrim says:

    I will gladly dump the hymn out of the hymnbook long before I vote to dump a needful term like “evangelical” or “catholic.” Let the Revivalist keep their tents and hymns; I will keep the Church and her language.

  14. Danny says:

    Zrim,

    Though I agree the hymn has been used and abused by revivalistic preachers such as Billy Graham, I don’t think I’m willing to give it up to them.

    Also, I don’t know if the hymn is a revivalistic battle-cry, even though it came from a time of revivalism. Many of Bonar’s hymns came from the same time period, but we wouldn’t think to describe his hymns this way. Again, I’m not saying the hymn hasn’t been used and abused, but I think with a little bit of teaching of our flock we can help rid it of its bad reputation.

    Again, let me reiterate that I appreciate the point in your post and don’t want to detract from it. But I also don’t want to drag the name of a perfectly good hymn in the mud.

  15. Zrim says:

    Your point is well taken, Danny, even as I stand by mine.

  16. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.

  17. Pingback: The Gospel of Law: The Brutalizing of Sinners « The Confessional Outhouse

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