The Point of It All
Three weeks ago I was fortunate enough to see the official launch of my first book: Understanding God: The Joy Of Finally Hearing God’s Good And Gracious Word. I was blessed to be joined by many longtime friends at a launch party at my home church. During the event I was asked what advice I would give to young people about the many challenges they would face as they make their way through life. Specifically the ethical and moral challenges to their attempt to live out their faith in the here and now.
I did not have a great answer and I may still not have a great answer. Yet, the question got me thinking in a broader manner about the point of the effort that this book entailed. The book itself is an examination of the damaging effects of thinking you need to perform “works” to get God to love you, using my life as a case study. This work examines the journey from faith to disbelief and back to faith by finally hearing with great clarity the good and gracious word that God is communicating to us.
One facet of the book that came out during the launch event was that I had exposed myself emotionally in the telling of my story. What I wish to make clear is that I did not do this to be an emotional exhibitionist. I am not some frat bro looking to pass myself off as “sensitive” to get laid. The point of exposing myself emotionally was to use this story as a springboard to a larger, much more important conversation.
That conversation centers on the fact that most of the church, this includes Catholics and Protestants, have theologically derailed. The hoary idea that we can, or must work our way into God’s favor has bled into almost every corner of His church. The last chapter of the book details the theological error and some of the history of the development of the notion that we can earn our salvation, with a focus specifically upon Protestantism. I use my personal story to exemplify the damage that this causes; the despair it creates and the hypocrisy it generates. Trying to meet a God standard of perfection in the face of our human frailties only serves to amplify feelings of unworthiness. Eventually this leads to a dispiriting drift away from any relationship with God.
It is my unshakable understanding that I am in no way alone in this, but rather, am one of tens of millions who have gone through this process. That the church is bleeding members is not controversial. The fact is that the church is in trouble and so are millions who experience no relationship with God. All of this is completely unnecessary. It stems from the fact that most of the Christian world has misunderstood what God has been telling us all along.
Actual Good News
The reality is of course that we cannot, nor do we have to, earn our way to heaven. God freely gives us His love and grace and forgiveness. We try and do good works in response to these gifts that God has showered upon us. This is tremendously Good News! This blows away all the doubt and the stench of hypocrisy that turns so many away from a relationship with God. Fully understanding what God is telling us gives us an amazing story to share with the world.
I am not going to rehash here what I wrote in the book. The point is that my story is a microcosm of the story of the millions who have left the church because of the stench of self-righteous works theology. Yet, my story is also the story of how I was able to find my way back. God works through the people He puts in our lives. He certainly did in my case. For me it was my wife, the pastor at the church she found and the faith community I became a part of. If I can find my way back that means anyone can. I say this in the book, but I will say it again; I was not looking for God, He came looking for me. Once I was hit with truly Good News concerning Jesus the Christ my hardened, cynical heart was softened and I became a believer in a truth far greater than myself. If finally understanding God’s good and gracious word brought me back from a place occupied by millions of others, then I believe that word can bring those millions back to God. If the people in my life were instruments of God’s communication to me, then we should strive to be those people for others.
Lighting the Candle
So, how do we become “those” people for others in our life? First, buy my book (duh!). More seriously, we need to commit to the insights of the early church reformers, starting with Martin Luther, about rejecting works as a way to salvation. Understanding Romans 3:28 the way these early reformers did is a good place to start: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law”. More colloquially put “we perform good works because we have been gifted salvation, not in order to gain salvation. This is where the Good News starts.
From there it becomes fashioning an outreach based upon that insight. Jesus is available to all. Jesus invites us all into a relationship with Him. However, we are the eyes and ears, hands, and feet of our Lord on earth. This means that we are to be the inviters. We are to be the ones welcoming people into community with us and God. This is especially true among those who have been seared because of their experience with a regime of works righteousness.
All that is really needed is a renewed, and refreshed attitude. It is a simple, yet powerful story we have to tell. Inevitably people will ask what they have to do to be a Christian. The answer is you do not have to “do” anything-just BE-lieve. If they have heard God’s good and gracious word and trust in it, then that is enough. God has done all the work, all the heavy lifting. Since it is apparent that God takes us as we are, but does not keep us as we are, the question arises: what do we do with this free gift of salvation?
The answer depends upon the individual. The need to care for and help one another is endless, so there is no shortage of opportunities. The specifics of this response to God’s gifts of grace upon grace is a lot less important now that we conceive of it as a response. All of this shift in attitude will convey such a beautiful, fresh message to those who have given up thinking that there is any good news left to hear about Jesus. If we as the church consistently and clearly convey this simple, powerful, and accurate message about what God is telling us, then I am convinced that the church will grow.
The falling away of many from the church has not seen a falling away from a belief in God. It is, I believe, a falling away from a rancid, erroneous message about what God is telling us. If we get clear on what that message is, we will go a long way to repairing the damage done to the church by the awful idea of earning our salvation. This is true also of keeping young people engaged, particularly in their twenties, when they tend to drift away. This also has the benefit of helping them stay focused on living out their faith in a positive manner.
In the wonderful 1983 movie The Right Stuff, about the early space program the character of Alan Shepard, marvelously portrayed by Scott Glenn is waiting on the tarmac in the capsule while the technicians and engineers dither about whether to give the greenlight for launch. Shepard finally reaches the end of his patience and explodes, saying to the engineers “fix your little problems, and light this candle”. It is long past time that the church fix it’s “little” problem and light the candle which can illuminate the path back to the Cross for the millions who have turned away from a garbled message based upon a misunderstanding of what God has been telling us. This, I firmly believe, must be a part of our response to God’s gifts.
In the coming weeks I will discuss more specific ideas and messaging that can help us achieve this goal as well as discuss how to deal with the inevitable pushback from those wedded to the notion of works righteousness.
Praise Be to God