The Just-As-I-Am Syndrome

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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.

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31 Responses to The Just-As-I-Am Syndrome

  1. RubeRad says:

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

    Once again, I feel compelled to press the distinction between the use of “Just as I am” — in isolation, as a sinner-comforting catchphrase — and the context of the actual words of that hymn, which are all about “fleeing to Christ as a desperate sinner”, and “confident in God, namely Christ”, and “understands the concept of mediation”.

    Also, you lost me in your shift to the last paragraph. You were building up steam with the “just-as-I-am vs. a sober understanding of sin” theme, and then switched to prosperity-lite?

    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.

    I like this much better than many things you have to say about the (non-?) transformative effects of sanctification. Proper discomfort with God produces “serious obedience”. And instead of feigned religiosity, we need some pure religion.

  2. Pingback: The Problem with “Just as I Am” « Heidelblog

  3. Zrim says:

    Rube,

    I realize I seem to be asking for it, but I’m honestly not really trying to so much “object to a hymn” as use its popularity to wonder if what lies behind it is as much questionable theology as solid theology. Right or wrong, that it is so closely associated with decisional regeneration and revivalistic religion sure doesn’t help the latter’s cause. Though it might help the cause of exclusive psalmody.

    I understand feeling lost at that point. But think moralistic-therapeutic deism for a minute. Now, how is the syndrome appreciably different from that? I don’t know what your answer will be, but it seems like whenever I ask that kind of question the typical answer sounds a lot like, “We can but they can’t.” In other words, pagans can’t talk in inappropriately cozy terms but believers, well, they can. But I still think that when Paul suggested we may utter “Abba” he had adoption in mind, not adolescent ease. And to the extent that greasy familiarity of moralistic-therapeutic deism is a function having things on our terms instead of God’s, it all smacks of a variant of prosperity gospel to me.

    If the second block-quote works for you better than other things, go with it. But for the record, I never mean to convey that “sanctification has no transformative effects.” I just mean those effects aren’t what we naturally seem to assume–they are counter-intuitive, mysterious, not immediately comprehensible.

  4. Vic says:

    This is an off-the-wall comment and I don’t intend to steer away from the post’s intent, and by the way, Zrim I appreciated your post much, so don’t feel obligated to respond.

    But given the reformed and presbyterian stance to adhere to Paul’s instruction for women not to teach is not the use of hymns, at least this one in particular, compoed by a woman, contradicting this stance?

    I am not in any way, shape or form trying to be “offensive.” So don’t even go there. It is simply an honest question.

  5. Zrim says:

    Vic,

    Not to neglect your direct question, but more interesting to me is how the hymn’s authorship might say something about how the syndrome does seem to reflect an effeminization.

    I can recall when my secular family decided we needed religion. For all of about 3 weeks my brother and I were forced to wear monogrammed sweaters and sit in Sunday school. He and I traded knowing looks about just how effete it all seemed, what with talk of animals, being good little doobies and Jesus in our hearts. It all seemed designed for girls. Little wonder men hate church.

  6. RubeRad says:

    Vic,

    Some may consider me soft on women, but as I see it, the Bible does not permit women to be ordained, but otherwise, they are permitted to serve the body in pretty much any way an unordained man is permitted to do — specifically to include the caveat that such service is in submission to eldership.

    Thus women pianists, organists, choir directors, librarians, sunday school teachers (even of adult men), bible-readers (distinct from preachers), and even hymn-writers can have various direct and indirect positive effects on the life and worship of the church.

    The key with the unordained serving in these roles is that those whom God has ordained properly oversee the use of their contributions.

    If an unordained man teaches a Sunday-school class, and an elder is sitting in the room, does that mean the teacher is excercising authority over the elder? No, because the elder has the authority at any time to say “No, you’re wrong there.” Same with a woman Sunday-school teacher or hymn-writer; she is not exercising authority, for the authority lies in the endorsement of the eldership. An elder has the authority to say “sorry, but you are teaching errors, and I’m going to have to put my foot down unless we can correct the teaching in some way”

  7. Chris Sherman says:

    “my brother and I were forced to wear monogrammed sweaters”

    It’s hard enough being called the bride of Christ without having to wear monogrammed sweaters.

    This is the best depiction of “God loves you…” I have seen:
    http://mildcolonialboy.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/god-loves-you.jpg?w=460&h=321

    (Picked from a random site)

  8. Zrim says:

    Chris,

    I’m not much for meeting pop iconography-sloganeering with more of the same. But I love ironic cheekiness. That’s funny.

  9. Chris Sherman says:

    The irony of the prosperity gospel proponents is that they are largely right, with one major exception, they just have the wrong age.

  10. Bruce S. says:

    I’ve been thankful for the prosperity gospel and all its permutations. It helped me understand what an over-realized eschatology looks like.

  11. Steve M says:

    zrim,

    My understanding is that “Just as I am” was composed for the purpose of singing it while coming forward for communion. The lady who wrote it was Anglican, I understand. It is too bad that an otherwise worthy hymn has been hijacked for sentimental and unbiblical purposes such as altar calls. The music is a little girly too. But ruberad is right, it is all about fleeing to Christ and having no other plea than to plead the blood of Christ. I know you are using the hymn as a touchstone of a systemic problem, but it seems wrong that a hymn that has already been abused and misinterpreted is being further abused on the basis of its misinterpretation.

  12. Echo_ohcE says:

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. Just as I am, though tossed about
    with many a conflict, many a doubt,
    fightings and fears within, without,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    4. 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.

    5. Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
    wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
    because thy promise I believe,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    6. Just as I am, thy love unknown
    hath broken every barrier down;
    now, to be thine, yea thine alone,
    O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

    I don’t know when some of you last read the words and carefully thought about them, so I included them for your convenience.

    This is not a case of a perfectly faithful to Scripture hymn being hijacked by sentamentalists. I don’t know how you can miss the Arminian emphasis on my coming to God.

    This is Billy Graham theology to a “T”. God does 90% of it, but we’ve still got to do our little part. We’ve got to come to him, to choose him.

    This song is the kind of thing you would sing to a baby while rocking it in your arms. Don’t worry Jesus, shhhh…hush your crying now. Echo’s coming, don’t you cry. Shhhhh, baby Jesus. I’m coming. Don’t worry, I’m not hoping in myself, I’m hoping in you, I’m coming. Hush now baby Jesus, I promise I won’t sin no more. Don’t cry baby Jesus. Shhhhh…

    Rube,

    Please, please don’t think it’s ok for women to read Scripture in church. Interpretation begins in the reading of Scripture, and interpreting the Scripture is the job of the minister only. Paul says not only that a woman shouldn’t have authority, but that they should not teach, indeed, that they should be silent in church. Some have argued that this doesn’t refer to Sunday School, or at least that it shouldn’t be applied there, but it at LEAST has to refer to the worship service. It HAS to.

    And no, I don’t think we ought to ever sing a hymn written by a woman.

    E

  13. Steve M says:

    Echo_ohcE,

    When you go forward to take communion, you have to go somewhere, you have to come forward. There is physical movement involved. I think at least it could be argued that that is what she is referring to.

    Is it Arminian to fly to the cross in repentance for sin?

    Divorced from the altar call, where everyone is getting saved all over again, we can see this is a hymn written for the penitent Christian, not someone in need of salvation.

    You wouldn’t sing the Magnificat?

    S

  14. Zrim says:

    Steve and Echo,

    I agree with Steve that there certainly is a response demanded of the sinner to the gospel, so being bidden and responding shouldn’t really bother us that much (seems consistent with the dialogical principle).

    But what I can’t get around is the sense that God accepts me just as I am instead of Jesus how he is. That isn’t very comforting to this Calvinist.

  15. That the hymn uses the expression of coming to Christ shouldn’t bother us per se. After all, the gospels allude to coming to Christ. (Jn 6:44, 65; 5:40; 7:37; Mt. 11:28, &tc)

    The problem arises when one divorces this activity from God’s sovereign choice of individuals.

    Also, as Zrim pointed out,

    I can’t get around…the sense that God accepts me just as I am instead of Jesus how he is.

    We do come to God, but our coming is predicated on the condition that we come to him with a iustitia alienum

  16. Chris Sherman says:

    “…he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

    I’m not supposing dead Lazarus had any other choice but to obey the call of God and come. I see it more as a summons to come than an invitation or a volition of a fallen will. Totally in an alien righteousness. Irresistible grace, if you will.

    Interestingly enough, his hands and feet were still bound and his face covered when he came.

    I’ve always wondered what would have been going through his thoughts when he was called out of the tomb. It would make for a great short story.

    and as Victor pointed out,

    From Matthew:
    “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

  17. Machiavelli says:

    “But what I can’t get around is the sense that God accepts me just as I am instead of Jesus how he is. That isn’t very comforting to this Calvinist.”

    Maybe you shouldn’t see those two as a contradiction. Maybe, the ‘just as I am’ in the song tries to comfort us, that we, because the righteousness of Jesus, can come to God. That we don’t have to be perfect people, that we don’t have to be righteous all by ourselves.
    We can come to God, not because something we did, but because of what He did.

  18. Todd says:

    The hymn may be singable in the right context with the proper understanding, but I still hate that tune with a passion.

  19. Todd,

    How about singing Psalm 91 to that tune?

    1. 1 The man allowed to occupy
    The secret place of God Most High
    Shall with Almighty God abide,
    And in His shadow safely hide.

    2. 2 I therefore of the LORD will say,
    “He is my refuge and my stay;
    My citadel of strength is He —
    My God in Whom my trust shall be.”

    3. 3 For He shall with His watchful care
    Preserve thee from the fowler’s snare;
    Yes, He shall be thy sure defense
    Against the deadly pestilence.

    4. 4 His outspread pinions shall thee hide;
    Beneath His wings shalt thou confide.
    His faithfulness shall ever be
    A shield and buckler unto thee.

  20. Todd says:

    Vic,

    Wouldn’t work for me – too much association with the crusades – BG crusades that is.

    Todd

  21. Zrim says:

    Mach,

    Maybe you shouldn’t see those two as a contradiction. Maybe, the ‘just as I am’ in the song tries to comfort us, that we, because the righteousness of Jesus, can come to God.

    Maybe. But now what to do about that awful tune, as Todd points out, and the guilt of association? First impressions are brutal, just brutal.

  22. Interesting.

    See, for me, I’m accustomed to singing Psalm 91B with that tune.

  23. Steve M says:

    “Maybe you shouldn’t see those two as a contradiction. Maybe, the ‘just as I am’ in the song tries to comfort us, that we, because the righteousness of Jesus, can come to God.”

    I think that’s the point the song is trying to make.

    I’m with you on the tune, and after singing it probably hundreds of times while growing up, it still makes me uneasy when I hear it. I get the old heart-pounding, sweaty feeling again. Should I go down the aisle?

    Maybe we should just say, “It was a good old song that got in with the wrong crowd.” And shoot it.

  24. Echo_ohcE says:

    Ok, well, I just know that I’m going to be seen as nitpicky, but I’m going to take another shot at trying to convince people that the song is stupid for its emphasis.

    But before I do, I agree with Zrim about this “just as I am” business. I’ll explain why in a minute.

    The Scriptures that people pasted into their quotes that are allegedly supposed to prove to me that the laborious refrain, “O Lamb of God I come, I come” is biblical actually had a different emphasis, which was exactly my point.

    Did Lazarus come out of the tomb when Jesus called him? Yeah, he sure did. Does Jesus say to let the little children come unto him? Yes. Does Jesus say for all those who are weary and heavy laden with the yoke of the Pharisees to come unto him and find rest? Yes. The Spirit and the bride say “come”.

    I don’t dispute that.

    But that’s not what the song is saying. Surely you recognize that there is a difference between, “The Spirit and the bride say ‘Come'” and “Lazarus come out!” right? There’s a difference.

    What’s the difference? The difference is emphasis. In Scripture, Jesus speaks – and Lazarus comes out. In the song, the emphasis is on my response to the call of Christ. In the Scripture, the emphasis is on the call itself.

    Now in point of fact, we do actually agree with the Arminians that we choose and thus come to Christ to be saved. True. It’s just that we tell a different story about why that happens. Coming to Christ with nothing in your hand warts and all, sin and all, just as you are is a biblical idea. (But remember I agreed with Zrim’s complaint above.)

    That’s why I’m complaining about the emphasis. The emphasis of the song is on my response. And it says it over and over again. It’s the common denominator in every verse. It’s the last word of every verse. It thus has prominence and importance.

    Whether or not this song was written originally as a song to be sung during communion or not doesn’t matter at all. The author of the song is not on trial here. Again, I’m not saying that the ideas of the song are unbiblical. What I’m saying is that the emphasis is off. Way off.

    Suppose I preached you a sermon that spent 30 seconds talking about what Christ did for you, and then followed that up with 30 minutes of how you should respond.

    What would you say about such a sermon? Wouldn’t you say that the emphasis was wrong? Wouldn’t you say that it was all law and no gospel? Wouldn’t you say that it was moralistic?

    And yet when this song does the exact same thing, emphasizing OUR response to Christ, you all bend over backwards talking about how we need to interpret it carefully and consider the fact that it was originally written for communion and all sorts of other things.

    By the same logic, we should also excuse moralistic preaching as being all about our response to the gospel.

    At the end of the day, the song is about ME, and the fact that I’m COMING to the Lord. I am the primary subject in the song. MY actions are what keep coming up again and again, sung in that lullaby sort of way, as if it is in my coming to the Lord that I am to take comfort, rather than the finished work of Christ.

    The song is junk and to be discarded. I’m not a psalms-only guy, but it’s songs like this that are pushing me in that direction.

    Again, in this song, it is me speaking to God, to Christ, reassuring him that yes, I am coming to him.

    And by the way, if that’s how you conceive of the Lord’s Supper, it’s still wrong. You don’t come to Christ in the Lord’s Supper, he comes to you. He is served to you by the minister and by the Spirit, just as in the preaching. You do not come to Christ in the sermon or in the sacraments – Christ is served to you on a silver platter.

    You DO, however, come to Christ in faith in salvation, that is, in your existential experience of salvation. In the worship service, however, Christ comes to you.

    That’s why we call it the Lord’s Day, or the Day of the Lord. It is his coming, his parousia.

    So the droning on and on about how wonderful it is that I come to the Lord is the wrong emphasis. The emphasis ought to be on Christ and what HE has done and will yet do.

  25. Vic says:

    E,

    You’re right. You are being nitpicky. Don’t get so worked up. Have an IPA and a stogey. Take a day off. 😀

    And this is from a guy who doesn’t like hymns.

  26. Mark says:

    Echo, you certainly make a point concerning the emphasis, but how big a problem is that when the Reverend sort a ‘balance’ it with other hymns? You don’t just sing Just As I Am and go home, the song is a part of a bigger picture and I’m wondering if it is correct to judge without the proper context.

    That said, the tune is just awfull. Exclusive Psalmsinging fot the win!

  27. Chris Sherman says:

    Echo,

    Yes, that’s it. Wrong emphasis. I am with you on that. When our church sings songs like “I Surrender All” (yuck) or any of the myriad of other “I” songs, “I will”, I this or I that, it makes me want to poke someone in the “I”. Let me sing about the person and work of Christ and “I” won’t complain.

  28. RubeRad says:

    That said, the tune is just awfull. Exclusive Psalmsinging for the win!

    How is exclusive psalmody going to guarantee non-awful tunes? Or how does EP principially exclude this tune?

    I agree with Echo though, that there is a much better case that the full text of Just As I Am lends itself to Arminianism, than to Antinomianism.

  29. Echo_ohcE says:

    Vic,

    Paul was also probably being nitpicky with Peter when he complained about where he sat at dinner.

    Mark,

    I’m convinced that we need to be explicitly and distinctly reformed in all we do. People derive their views on theology from the songs we sing. If a minister should be very careful what he says in the sermon, which people usually won’t remember, then we should be even more careful with what we sing, which people will always remember and reflect upon. Why? Because singing makes you remember. Remembering it necessarily implies theological influence.

    Hey look, if you guys think I’m being nitpicky or whatever, that’s fine. It’s a pastor’s job to be nitpicky about this kind of thing, and as a seminary student, I hope to be a pastor someday. So, you can rest assured that I will not be picking this hymn. Ever.

    E

  30. Echo_ohcE says:

    Chris,

    You got it. Exactly my point.

    E

  31. Echo_ohcE says:

    Chris,

    The name “iPod” is about the most brilliant marketing ever.

    E

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