So, what do you want from Christianity?

Here’s an interesting question: What do you want from Christianity?

A long time ago I heard someone describing becoming a Christian as an act of “enlightened self-interest,” where we are motivated by what we hope to get out of it rather than a commitment to serve God and others. Looking at the Gospels, it seems that Jesus never turned people away for wanting something from him; in fact, it was those who didn’t want anything from him that he turned away. Even Peter’s great statement of faith, “where else would we go? Only you have the words of life” (John 6:68), speaks of Peter’s need for these words of life. So, this enlightened self-interest does not appear to be a bad thing.

Considering this, plus the fact that Christianity has, at least for many people in the west, become a consumerist endeavor—one in which we pick churches and even religions on what we perceive we need—then the obvious question becomes, “what do you want from Christianity?”

In answering this question, we could go a number of different ways. However, reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, there are two primary responses: a life under the law, with a list of requirements to fulfill, or a life of freedom. Many people, for a number of different psychological and bad theological reasons, choose a life under the law. A relative few, it seems, choose a life of freedom.

Two Gates

In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus says

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Almost never do you hear this verse taught in the larger context of what Jesus is saying in Matthew chapter 7. He starts off by saying, “Don’t judge others.” Then, he speaks of the Father giving his children good gifts, merely for the asking, and teaches them what we know as the Golden Rule: treat others like you’d like to be treated back “for this sums up the law.” Immediately following verses 13 & 14, Jesus talks about false prophets, and how to recognize them by their fruit.

It seems here that Jesus is trying to teach his disciples a different way from that of the law; we don’t get by working, we get by asking. Good trees naturally produce good fruit. Take the narrow road, not the widely traveled one.

Works, or grace?

I’ve always heard the explanation of the two paths as “choose holiness, not sin,” and yes, there’s something to be said for that, even though this does not seem to be Jesus’ emphasis here. Paul says we were set free not to sin, but to live in freedom, which is not to sin.

But, which gate leads to a life of works-righteousness, and which is the gateway to freedom and grace? Is it possible that we’ve confused our gates?

If Paul’s thinking accurately represents the Gospel as Jesus intended it (which I believe it does), then what leads to destruction is relying on ourselves, and what leads to live is receiving grace as a gift—which seems to follow Jesus’ line of thinking in the prior verses.

The Question

So, the question remains: What really do you want from Christianity, a life of self-reliance and works-righteousness, or a life of freedom that comes from grace?

Ironic repentance vs. the real deal

There are people in every church I’ve been in who need to be set free.

This is not to say that some of these churches didn’t preach grace. But sometimes, it just takes a while for grace to seep in to where change needs to happen. Grace on the surface is one thing; grace in our innermost being is life-changing.

Much of Christianity teaches that we “miss the mark.” This is true, of course. However, much of Christianity forgets to teach that Jesus has hit the mark for us.  So, rather than hearing that we have succeeded in Christ, we only hear that we have failed and that we need to do more, and try harder. Once this concept is fully rooted in someone’s thinking, it may stay with them for years, in spite of their gaining an intellectual understanding of grace.

I suspect that some people first join these graceless, “miss-the-mark” churches because they already know that they don’t hit the mark, so they fit right in. They are given some guidelines that may help them hit the mark, sometimes, and they are promised that someday they will either make the mark in Heaven, or perhaps that the mark will simply be removed. And, being beat up every week for continually missing the mark helps assuage their guilt.

That’s the only reason I can think of to explain why people actually convert to a works-oriented form of Christianity. This parody of Christianity functions something like a 12-step group: The first step is admitting you are a sinner, and realizing that you will always be a sinner. The best you can hope for is God helping you to sin just a little bit less, or perhaps it’s enough just to know you’re surrounded by people who feel as lousy as you do.

This kind of graceless thinking gets into your core, because in your core you’re already feeling like crap. It simply confirms that what you have believed about yourself is really true. Here’s the irony about converting to a legalistic version of Christianity: In some ways, because you aren’t changing how you feel about things in your core, you don’t really have to repent all that much.

To accept salvation by grace takes real repentance. What you need to repent from is the thinking that your performance actually matters, in a spiritual sense. Yes, you’re a sinner, and if you ever think you can keep God’s law, it will condemn you. Now, get over it.

What you need to repent (turn) to is the truth that Jesus performed on our behalf; he kept the law, and more than that, he conquered death (the consequences of sinning). Think of the law as a video game (only with life or death consequences): Jesus has beaten all of the levels. In essence, the game is over. And not only that, the consequences for losing the game has been removed. You are now free to play the game (just make sure you log on under Jesus’ name).

The truth about repentance

Repentance (in a soteriological sense) has never been about changing your behavior; no behavior-mod program can save you. Repentance is about changing your core beliefs. For most of us, repentance is like peeling an onion; it happens layer by layer. With the discovery of each new layer of self-reliance, more repentance needs to take place. The good news is that it’s all by grace, the great onion-peeler.

So be free—because that’s why we’ve been set free.

Forgiveness is an Investment

(cross-posted here)

A great post today from Molly Friesen at Route 5:9, Forgiveness is an Investment: What it Costs. She’s blogging through Paul Tripp’s book on marriage, What Did You Expect. This, and Linda’s prior post,  The Dark “Benefits” of Unforgiveness, are worth reading. I’m guessing Tripp’s book is, too.

It’s interesting that so many legalists forget about the rule of forgiveness, which is a key element in Jesus’ teaching. He even went so far as to say that if we don’t forgive, our Heavenly Father won’t forgive us, either.  Seriously – it’s at the end of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:

12 And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
13 And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

14 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Now, you can try to take the position that this “is more of a guideline than a rule,” but Jesus doesn’t seem to give much leeway here.

So how does this fit into a theology of radical grace?

It fits quite well, actually, with a proper understanding of forgiveness.  As many of us were taught in Sunday School, Jesus dies for the sins of the world.

1 John 2:2: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.  (NIV)

Jesus’ sacrifice was not made for us individually; forgiveness was truly once and for all.  If we refuse to acknowledge and participate in this forgiveness for someone who has wronged us, we are simply refusing to participate in God’s forgiveness. Being forgiven means we agree that everyone is forgiven. Refusing to forgive someone means we are closing our heart, not that God is withholding anything from us.

Now, do we forgive perfectly?  I seriously doubt it. I don’t think I do, even if it is my intent. But, God’s grace–God’s power made real in our lives–is sufficient for that, too.

We have been set free, not to sin, but so we can live–and forgive–freely.

A Knight’s Tale: A Parable of Justification

Here’s a short excerpt from the book I am writing:

Possibly the best illustration of this aspect of justification is in the 2001 film A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger as William, a thatcher’s son who takes on the totally fictitious persona of Sir Ulrich von Lichtenstein so he can participate in jousting tournaments, which are limited to proven nobility.  He makes it to the finals, only to have his identity revealed by his nemesis, the evil Count Adhemar. Following the revelation of “Ulrich’s” true identity, William is arrested and put into the stocks, as he should have been; he was, after all, guilty of fraud.  He knows, and accepts this.

Suddenly, Prince Edward (son of the King, the Prince of Wales), steps out from the crowd to proclaim that per his personal historians, William is indeed descended “from an ancient noble line,” and is then, a nobleman.  If this weren’t enough, Edward adds, “This is my word, and as such, is beyond contestation.”  He then proceeds to knight William under his real name: Sir William Thatcher.

Like William, we are frauds, guilty under the Law, and deserving of punishment.  Our accuser reminds us of that daily. However, here’s the kicker:  Jesus, our Prince, makes this proclamation: “You are noble. You are a child of the King. This is my word, and as such, is beyond contestation.”  If anyone but Prince Edward (except for his father, the King) had made such a proclamation, William would have continued to live in doubt and fear. However, by the Prince’s declaration, even William himself couldn’t contest his nobility.  This is our case as well.  Jesus has proclaimed our justification, our freedom and our nobility, and we ourselves do not have the right to contest it!

We are free before the Law. Not only that – we’ve been adopted into the King’s family, and “knighted” (sealed with the Holy Spirit and attested to in baptism) as proof. The Law has been satisfied, we are declared righteous, we are made royalty, and it has all been done in the open, in sight of our accuser.  (c) Copyright 2009 Alden Swan, all rights reserved

Justification is the crux of Christianity, although most Christians don’t understand the concept whatsoever.  For more on the subject, you can read here and here.