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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Too Much of a Good Thing?

I have been a Christian for a number of decades now, and a pastor for over 12 years. In all that time I have bumped into, and sometimes crashed into, various oddities in the Christian tribe. One of those quirks has to do with Christian holiness.

On the one hand are those who promote a strenuous rigor through various fastings, prayings, askesis (the Greek word for athletic or military training from which we get “ascetic”), techniques, and mechanical maneuvers. It has been my regular experience that this kind of scrupulousness breeds a subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, self-righteous vanity. This approach reads only half of the New Testament, the “do this” or “let us” directive portions of Sacred Scripture, which consume and wipe out the Gospel-promises. I think that much of North American Evangelical Christianity sits in this campsite, which is why you see loads of books and hear oodles of sermons that address the Twelve Steps to Success, or 40 days to being a better you or a better church.

On the other hand are those who endorse something of a “let go and let God” attitude toward sanctity.  They assure us, rightly it seems to me, of the Gospel and that God has saved us no matter what and will save us in the end, no matter what. But then they push this good news, wrongly it seems to me, to mean that holiness should never be worried about, or fretted over. This approach seems to only read the other half of the New Testament, over-emphasizing the “what God has done in Christ” promise portions of Sacred Scripture, and absorb the directives until they evaporate into oblivion.  Some in my own Presbyterian and Reformed tradition sit in this campsite.

Recently I read a book along the lines of this latter notion, written by Steve Brown. It is titled, “Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You.” Brown lays out, in his rather flippant, humorous style, the many ways that the Gospel of Jesus is truly good news, “You don’t have to get better to get God to love you. You don’t have to get better to maintain God’s love” (118). He rightly points out that telling people to get better is like trying to teach frogs how to fly.  Instead, what we all need is God’s loving rescue in Jesus Christ to capture us and enrapture us.

Brown also correctly stresses that self-righteousness will shackle us, and sap our joy and turn us into stuffy, knotted, tense people. As he puts it, “But more important than anything else, self-righteousness will kill any hope we have of ever being free, forgiven, and able to live in some kind of reasonable peace with ourselves” (30).

The trouble, hinted at faintly throughout the book, comes burbling to the surface in the seventh chapter, “When Getting Better Doesn’t Matter.” Almost immediately the author asserts, “The gospel of free sins makes getting better sort of irrelevant” and then goes on to place the blame for people fleeing Christianity on the shoulders of those who promote sanctification (115). He goes on to say, “Christians, by and large, are neurotic about purity, obedience, and holiness” (116).

But where Brown’s tire takes a nail and starts to go flat is when he quips, “And you don’t have to get better to be sanctified or holy” (118). In this statement the reader begins to see that the author has absorbed the lived-out aspects of sanctification (directives) into the Gospel’s declaration aspects of sanctification (promises). In other words, don’t sweat the “perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7.1) passages of the Bible, because you’re already holy by God’s Gospel declaration, and that “be holy” stuff is now irrelevant.

This absorbing the directives of the New Testament into the good news announcement comes out clearest when Brown uses 2 Corinthians 5.17 as his proof-text. The passage promises, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” and then he observes, “But it becomes a problem when we turn that fact into a commandment. Paul isn’t saying that we should do anything. He is telling us who we are” (124). The problem is that he takes a Gospel-declaration passage and misinforms the reader that there is no “become a new creation” aspect of the New Testament, conveniently avoiding the other half of the New Testament that directs us new creation people to put off the old humanity and put on the new (Ephesians 4.17-5.2, to name one of several passages).

Contrary to Brown’s pronouncements, sanctification is not irrelevant to God. In fact, it is God’s will for us, who desires us – his holy people – to be holy and so has given us his Holy Spirit. To bring out the point, allow me to close with 1 Thessalonians 4.1-8, highlighting specific portions of it for you.
“Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.  For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.  Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.”

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