Why does the evangelical community end up with sinners like Governor Mark Sanford (adultery) and Ted Haggard (immorality) and CEO Kenneth Lay (fraud) and evangelist Jim Baker (licentiousness)—to take but a very few examples! A year doesn't go by that we aren't treated to another major scandal. Who will be next?
Unfortunately, history is a discomforting witness to the truth that church leaders and followers are all too easily mesmerized by money, sex, and power—or just plain sloth. In recent history, evangelical jeremiads were usually lamenting the sorry state of liberalism. Today, the jeremiads are self-directed, from The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind to The Scandal of Evangelical Politics to Pagan Christianity. It's now pretty much agreed that the evangelical church mirrors the dysfunctions of secular society, from premarital sex stats to divorce rates to buying habits. Much to our dismay, we are hardly a light to the world, nor an icon of the abundant, transformed life.
What has gone wrong? The first answer seems to be that we are not thinking right or doing enough. Some put their chips on redefining the gospel in social terms; they assume the problem is individualism. Others bet on spiritual formation; the problem is that we're lazy and spiritual disciplines point the way to a more godly future. Some say we need the dynamism of the Holy Spirit; the problem is formalism. Others plea for more accountability groups or more thoughtful worship music or more time in prayer or more of some other magic bullet. If we only do something more, things will improve.
We've tried all these, and tried them time and again. The lamentable conclusion seems to be that while the gates of Hades will never prevail against the church, the spirit of moral mediocrity has pretty much won the day. This is not to deny those wonderful moments when the church really acts like the church, when outsiders notice Jesus Christ as a result! Such moments are pure gifts, signs of the coming kingdom. But history suggests they are intermittent. The usual reality is that the church, from corrupt Corinth to amoral America, remains a sinful institution, full of sinful people.
Perhaps it's time we try a new approach, and do less.
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To do less seems scandalous, because the very justification of Christianity is on the line. Jesus promises that we'll not only enjoy full life (John 10:10), but that we'll be salt and light to dying society (Mt. 5:13-16), and an example of love to a watching world (John 13:35). Paul says that in Christ we are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), that we are called to become like Jesus (Rom. 8:29). If we do not evidence a transformed life, the Christian faith will seem like a fraud. If our churches look no more vital than the Kiwanis' Club, what's the point?
No wonder we panic in the face of our own corruption—or when someone tells us that there may be something more important to do than reckless striving for righteousness.
The problem is not a new one. Many early churches were a mess—just read Paul's correspondence to the divisive, sexually libertine Corinthians. In fact, Paul, for all his ethical admonitions, admits that while he wants to do good, he often seems unable to do it (Rom. 7). Even at the end of his life, after decades of living for Christ, he thinks of himself only as the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:16). This does not sound like the victorious life to me.
And yet Paul seems unfazed. He remains confident of his transformation in Christ. How can this be?
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To begin with, he did not pin his hopes on himself, or a new theology, or an accountability group, or even on spiritual formation. After describing his moral condition as "wretched," he simply says, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
Why? Because "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 7:25-8:1; all quotes from the ESV).
The primary issue for Paul was not striving for transformation but resting in forgiveness. That he continued to sin, and sin woefully, was not as important to him as the fact that no sin he could commit was beyond God's desire to forgive—nothing, not even his ongoing sinfulness, could separate him from the love of God in Christ! No wonder he lived in gratitude—doing less!
To be sure, all his letters assume that, in wonder and gratitude, we will "grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ" (Eph. 4:15), and he assumes that the Christian will show signs of that growth—of course! But Paul says that he is still "of the flesh, sold under sin," (Rom. 7:14), and that he lives by the promise that someday we will be set free and "obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21). While exhorting us always to let our gratitude for God's forgiveness overflow into works of love, he never imagines that our moral progress will be worth writing home about—our bodies are dead because of sin (Rom. 8:10)! Admiring our good works is like looking at our loved one, stretched out in a casket, commenting on how good he looks in that suit—for all the good it's going to do him!
Instead Paul sets his eyes on a promised transformation. "Behold! I tell you a mystery . . . we shall all be changed," he tells those immoral Corinthians. "For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed (1 Cor. 15:51-52). Though he is speaking specifically about our resurrected bodies, his entire theology points not to the present but to the future. It's a theology not of present signs and wonders but of promised glory.
Yes, Paul sometimes speaks as if change has already occurred: We are a new creation! But he talks like this because the One who died and rose for us will fulfill his promise to renew all of creation.
It's like this: We've won the lottery of life, and we hold the winning ticket. It's only a matter of getting to the lottery office to cash it in. We are full with child, and it's only a matter of time before a breathing baby comes forth. A down payment has been made on our ideal home, and it's only a matter of time before we can move in. We live in hope!
In the meantime, we're living in the meantime. And the meantime can, frankly, be a terrible time, full of selfishness and vanity, murder and greed, and subject to decay—as our bodies and souls know all too well.
As Martin Luther put it, the Christian is "at one and the same time a sinner and a righteous person. He is a sinner in fact, but a righteous person by the sure reckoning and promise of God that he will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. And so he is totally healthy in hope, but a sinner in fact. He has the beginning of righteousness, and so always continues more and more to seek it, while realizing that he is always unrighteous."
If we live in this hope, we will not be puzzled or despondent when our public heroes fall or church disappoints or our own lives are as wretched as Paul's. Instead, we'll join him in saying, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! There is therefore now no condemnation (not from God, not from ourselves!) for those who are in Christ Jesus."
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Ah, but do I hear the anxious whisper or an astonished shout? "Can we then just go on sinning since our striving for holiness accomplishes relatively little, since we are called first and foremost to gratefully believe in the gospel?" (Rom. 6:15).
But why have we played the lottery in the first place? Because we were tired of living in the squalor of poverty. We were hoping against hope to someday enjoy a decent life, with a solid roof over our heads and attractive clothes on the body, with a car that will not break down and enough money in the bank to forestall a night at the homeless shelter. With the winning lottery ticket in hand, are we going to use our new credit rating to get liquored up or squander a few nights in Las Vegas? Or are we going to put a down payment on a home, and take a trip to Nordstrom's, and visit the Toyota dealership, and open a savings account at Chase?
It is precisely because we are guaranteed transformation that we, in gratefulness and a sure hope, can start to live as if we've already collected our winnings. And when done in gratefulness, instead of anxiety or striving, well, the yoke of Christ is easy, feeling less like doing and more like resting.
In the meantime, we remain in spiritual poverty. We're still desperate, needy, broken, sinful people. Blessed are those who know this, for they know the hope of the coming kingdom! Blessed are those who do not confuse the future with the present, the kingdom of heaven with the present age. Blessed—happy, joyful, thankful!—are those who live not by sight, but by faith in a sure promise.
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).
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Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site, including:
The Great Evangelical Anxiety | Why change is not our most important product. (July 16, 2009)
The Scandal of the Public Evangelical | What we really have to offer the world. (July 2, 2009)
Chaos Theology | Finding hope in the midst of the terror of creation. (June 18, 2009)