It's been a tough couple of months for evangelical public figures. We discovered that Carrie Prejean, Miss California, sudden heroine in the gay marriage debate, posed nude for the cameras to kick-start her modeling career.
Then there were the Gosselins, a seemingly devout couple who were sacrificially raising a "ginormous" family on reality TV for all to see their Christian witness. They have decided to divorce. They mouthed the usual mantra, about doing it for the sake of the kids—and the hearts of the devout nationwide sank in despair.
This week we're squirming over South Carolina Governor, and active Christian, Mark Sanford. Every day we discover more sordid details of his extra-marital affair, with Sanford himself revealing, well, just way too much information. Do we really need to know how many times he kissed his paramour, and where they met, and which meetings resulted in "crossing the line" and so forth? Now he's trying to spiritually justify staying in office. It feels so narcissistic and self-serving.
It's discouraging to see Christians who could have been models of our faith become merely examples of what G. K. Chesterton called the one doctrine subject to empirical proof: original sin.
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There is something in the evangelical psyche that denies this reality. Yes, we're a movement that preaches repentance and confession of sin as a chief means of grace. But after conversion, our holiness heritage kicks in. We preach, teach, and live "discipleship," "obedience," and "following" Jesus. We're deathly afraid of cheap grace. We assume that with sufficient exhortation and moral effort, our sins will become smaller than a widow's mite and our righteousness larger than life.
This is coupled with the long-standing evangelical myth that there should be something different about the Christian. A look. An attitude. A lifestyle. Something noticeable, something that causes the unbeliever to pause and wonder, "What does that person have?" Because it is such an integral part of our evangelistic method, we spend enormous amounts of psychic energy trying exude that something.
But we find, more days than not, that there's not much to that something. We drop our coffee and blurt out a four-letter word, or we drink too much at the office party, or we fail to enquire about the welfare of a neighbor who just discovered she has cancer. Most days, we seem to be no different from the rest of humanity.
I think this is what most disturbs us about celebrity moral failures. We want someone to look up to, to model for us and for the world the righteous Christian life. But we find out that more times than not, these public Christians are just like us—subject to youthful indiscretions, unable to sustain commitments through hard times. Lying. Cheating. Foolish.
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This is not to say that being a Christian does no good. Take me, for example! I'm more patient, caring, kind, and compassionate today than I was when I first went forward at an altar call forty-some years ago (just ask my wife). Some of that is due to the maturity that comes from making lots of mistakes, but some of it is due to four decades of steady Christian discipleship.
Then again, I'm always running into non-Christians who appear to be as patient, caring, kind, and compassionate as I am. Add to that a growing awareness of the reality stirring in the deepest levels of my being, of just how much I remain selfish, narcissistic, prideful, and indifferent (just ask my wife!). And then there's that continuing hostility toward God after all these years (e.g., why does morning prayer so often feel like a duty to get out of the way when I supposedly love God?).
I sometimes wonder if becoming "sanctified" in this life is mostly about becoming increasingly aware of just how much we are, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, "miserable sinners," and that, really, "there is no health in us."
Sanctification certainly means this much: having the courage to face that reality and not flinch. That courage comes from knowing the merciful judgment and the humbling grace of God, knowing that God has judged the ugly reality of our lives, condemning it to its rightful death. And, at the same time, knowing that he has accepted us in all our sordidness, welcoming us as if we were as righteous as we sometimes imagine ourselves to be!
It is God's utter acceptance of us that allows us to look at our miserable sinfulness and not flinch. If that's not the final step in sanctification, it is certainly a prerequisite to any other step. And it's about all most of us will experience in this life.
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But for evangelicals, that has not been enough. We feel compelled to add something to the gospel mix. We hear the footsteps of "cheap grace" right behind us, so we try to run harder and faster and higher, trying to make ourselves presentable not only to God but to our fellow man, driven in part by our desire to be a good witness, to show forth that something.
Note how one writer put it in reflecting on the Gosselin debacle. (I'll leave the writer anonymous, because my beef is not with her.) The sentiment expressed is widespread in our movement. After rightly suggesting that the flaws of Jon and Kate reflect our movement's flaws, she says that we must do things differently: Find new role models, practice forgiveness better, and take marriage vows more seriously. Do, do, do. Then she concludes, "Then, and only then, will Christians have something to offer the world."
The problem, of course, is that there is no empirical evidence to suggest that Christians will actually do these things consistently. Not private Christians. Not public Christians—it's only a matter of months, maybe days (!) before another scandal will be revealed in the press.
Such moral exhortations are no doubt needed, but we must never believe that "then and only then" will we Christians have something "to offer the world." What we offer the world is not ourselves or our moral example or our spiritual integrity. What we offer the world is our broken lives, saying, "We are sinners saved by grace." What we offer the world is Jesus Christ and him crucified.
"Be a sinner and sin boldly," said Martin Luther, "but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly. For he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here, we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness but, as Peter says, we look for a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. … Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner."
Make no mistake, this is not cheap grace. Not cheap at all—it's free. And it's the most precious thing we have to offer the world.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today and Books & Culture articles on evangelicalism include:
What Scandal? Whose Conscience? | Some reflections on Ronald Sider's Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. (July 1, 2007)
The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience | Why don't Christians live what they preach? (January 1, 2005)
The Evangelical Scandal | Ron Sider says the movement is riddled with hypocrisy, and that it's time for serious change. (April 13, 2005)
A Scandal of the Secular Conscience? | Who really cares. (January 1, 2008)
Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site.
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