Above photo by Daniel Nockles, 2016
I had some things I wanted to write about and I began to look for scriptural support for my argument. It didn't take long before I realized that everything I wanted to say had been said before... in Paul's letter to the Romans. The original letter outlines the differences between Jews and Gentiles, which – I will argue – are comparable to the "religious Christian" (as opposed to "true Christian" or simply "Christian") and non-Christian. I provide a definition for "religious Christian" and "Christian" contextually, below.
Throughout this essay, I will make numerous references to the book of Romans. I am not attempting to translate or annotate Romans, I am only trying to emphasize the parallels between the issues in the church today and the issues as laid out by Paul. I am not a Biblical scholar nor an authority on the book. Notwithstanding, I have invested a great deal of time mulling over the writings and attempting to make sense of them. After you have read this essay, I would encourage you to re-read Romans 1-7 in its entirety.
As a Christian, I stand behind some hard-to-swallow beliefs. How can I believe in a God that would let someone go to hell? How can I believe in a God that lets bad things happen to good people? If God is all-powerful, what does that say about our free will? And perhaps the worst of all: how can I call myself a Christian when self-proclaiming Christians have been behind such acts of judgement, intolerance, and hate?
Yet in the face of all these questions, I am not ashamed of the Gospel. The Gospel - the good news that the God of an ancient, largely illiterate and pre-science people, a monotheistic people living in a polytheistic world, through whose prophets promised the fulfilment of a holy law of impossible and seemingly arbitrary standards and mysterious contradictions, actually consummated that covenant in its entirety through the life of Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:16) The more I study the ancient writings predating the life of Christ, the more I see how all-encompassing this Gospel is and how this Gospel is the answer to every question of doubt that can be thrown before a Christian today. (Romans 1:17) Yet even though I was raised in church, for about the first twenty years of my life, my understanding of the Gospel was horribly off track. For most of my life, I believed in the following "gospel":
- There are ten things that are wrong because God said so.
- (There are other things that are also wrong, but not on the original list of ten. They are no less wrong, except a few of these other things are more appropriate within a specific, cultural context... it's kinda complicated. Try not to get into a debate on these matters.)
- Everyone does these wrong things, whether they are on the list of the ten or elsewhere. Everyone is absolutely inundated with 'wrongness'.
- You need to confess to God that you are wrong and, if you do, he will forgive you if you really, really mean it, but you have to really mean it and absolutely never, not ever do the same wrong again.
- If you do the wrong again, repeat step 4 as needed.
Jesus Christ was somehow included in the process. At best, the life and death of Jesus served as an illustration to help swallow the medicine that was the never-ending cycle of repentance and failure. Most of the time, Jesus was simply the guy who coordinated everyone's efforts in step 4. Even though I was taught "Jesus died on the cross for my sins," I continued acting as if Jesus' death and resurrection wasn't really a necessity. I liked the symbol, but if Jesus had never died on the cross, even if Jesus had never even lived, I could have been the exact same Christian. Consequently, what I believed (repentance and sacrifice) wasn't too far off from what had been outlined in the Old Testament. Biblically, the New Testament – to me – was less of a "New Testament" and more of an "Addendum". For all intents and purposes, the New Testament may of well have been replaced with:
"And then, after a little while, God said, 'You know, I suddenly realized sacrificing sheep and stuff is a big waste of time when you could be doing other things. Instead, from now on all you have to do is just say you are sorry and I will forgive you. I'll do is just imagine I am punishing someone else and not you. I will get all that anger and wrath out of my system so when I am all done, it will be like the punishment you deserved was already taken care of and we can just carry on like nothing ever happened."
There was even a time in my life when I actually thought that if I died immediately after committing a "bad" sin (you know, one of the "worse ones") without having asked forgiveness of it, despite years of faithful prayer, the lack of a prayer at the end of my life would lead me into hell. I was able to think like that because of too great an emphasis on the law. In other words, growing up I perceived the most powerful sermons were those that focused on sin. The reason sermons on sin had such a strong impact on me was because the applications of sin in my everyday life were very cut and dry: "Such-and-such is sinful. DON'T do it!" I never remember hearing a sermon that talked about how to actually live life: how to practice integrity in the workplace, how to exhibit generosity in your neighborhood, how to treat strangers with kindness, how to spend your free time in a way that honors God. Don't get me wrong, I understood that these things are important and Biblical, but I had no idea what it looked like outside of volunteering at a church event. My only hope was if I went to church every Sunday and said my prayers, I might, by God's power and grace, manage to be a "good person" for the rest of the week. It didn't bother me what "being a good person" entailed because, looking around me, I could see no one else who knew any better than I did, even if they were better pretenders than I was.
At last, it finally occurred to me that the reason it appeared so few Christians are affected by the Bible was not because the Bible lacked effect, but because the people proclaiming their belief in it didn't actually believe in what the Bible really said. Given my sin-focused education, I think the most prominent contradiction between religious Christian living and the Bible's actual teaching is revealed in Romans:
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.
If the above verse is to be taken at face value, then why do I think of the law when I reflect on what I learned from church? If we are truly "dead to sin", shouldn't the law (morality, sin, etc) be the furthest thing from what is taught in church?
If we learn anything in church, we learn there is one God and his law is holy, but everyone knows this already. (James 2:19, Romans 1:20-21) If you ask a non-believer to describe what he thinks Christians believe about God, even he will be able to describe God's power and wrath. (I actually asked this question to a non-Christian friend of mine. He was initially taken by surprise at the question, then he said "I guess I would say that Christians believe their God is the only creator of the universe and that he is always right, that he is perfect in every way.") The fact that non-Christians are aware of this belief has little bearing on the way they live. It isn't like they suddenly realize, "Wow! What an amazing belief Christians have! Maybe I should change my life and become a Christian!" The fact of the matter is, the current perception of the commonly-held Christian belief has little power to change hearts. In fact, I have met too many people who have fled the church out of fear and disgust of the judgement over them. They don't see room in the church to act on the desires of their hearts, so they turn away from the faith to act on what they know to be true to themselves. (Romans 1:25)
What does this say about religious Christians then? If those that turn away from the church are depraved and condemned, does that mean those who continue in the religion (Attending church, praying regularly, volunteering, trying to be a "good person") are righteous? Absolutely not! Even those that call themselves Christians do the same things. (Romans 2:1) If anything, those who remain in the church are worse off. At least those who have departed for the sake of themselves have given up bearing the name of Christ. From under the safety of a church roof, the religious Christian looks out at the homosexual living in the world and condemns him while he himself falls short of God's high calling. (Romans 1:26-27, Romans 2:2-3) What the religious Christian who does this fails to understand is that the act of condemning another person, whether "Christian" or not, is to show contempt for the riches of God's kindness, forbearance, and patience. (Romans 2:4)
Therefore, it does not matter whether a person calls themselves a "Christian" or not. The one who lives apart from God's law is condemned for their disobedience, the one who lives under God's law is condemned for their unrepentant heart. (Romans 2:12)
So if no one can live to the letter of God's law, how does the religion of Christianity better a person's position before God? And if the church has harmed the reputation of Christ, is there a hope for the church? (Romans 3:1-3) Or perhaps most importantly, if no person in God's own creation, Christian or not, can please God with his or her life, is God unjust to carry out his wrath on us? (Romans 3:5) If I understand religious Christianity to be a matter of right and wrong and a continual cycle of repentance, if that was truly all there was to the Gospel, then not only is this hardly any different from Old Testament Judaism, but the consequences of such a faith would lead us to conclude that it is better to be a non-Christian than a Christian. (Romans 3:9-18)
There must be something more to Christianity than knowing sin and repenting of it.
There is something more. When Jesus died on the cross "for our sins", he didn't die so we could continue the endless cycle of repentance. He actually died for all sin: past, present and future. Through his death, the righteousness that was his is transferred to us. The implication is that we are dead to sin. Free from sin. It means that when we sin, God can treat us as if we hadn't. In the same way the Bible says there is no difference between Jew and Gentile (Romans 3:8) there is no difference between religious Christian and the non-Christian, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ. In doing so, God shows his righteousness and mercy, because through Jesus Christ, every sinner need not be destined for hell. (Romans 3:22-26) This is what the "true Christian" believes, this is what the Bible actually says a Christian is.
As a result, no Christian can boast in their Christianity and there can be no hierarchy that elevates a Christian over a non-Christian. To say, "This person will go to hell because this person is not a Christian" is to describe righteousness being credited to our religion. Being a Christian is the very belief that neither one's acts nor one's identity warrant one's justification. This is comparable to the Jews' practice of circumcision. (Romans 4:9-11.) Therefore Christianity is not a religion, but the name used to describe the justification of the undeserving. (Romans 4:20-25) Calling oneself a "Christian" is not a statement of practice ("I go to church, I am a creationist, I believe some things are inherently evil because God said so...") but a statement of confession ("I recognize I don't deserve the mercy I've been given.") (Romans 5:1-2)
The knowledge of our undeservedness and Christ's mercy has consequences. These consequences affect our behavior and our behavior can resemble a religion. However, in Christianity the confession of faith (recognition of our undeservedness and Christ's saving grace) always precedes the practice. The problem arises when one attempts to practice what Christians appear to be practicing before the belief has established a foot hold. There is something attractive about participating in a community that appears to be recipients of God's favor. There is something attractive about turning over a new leaf. You know what isn't attractive at all? It's the true Christian belief that everyone is truly on the same level as the worse sinner. (Romans 5:6-8) That idea tends not to sink in immediately, but when that does sink in, it has power to make a person immune from suffering. It is our answer to the question, "How can a good God let bad things happen to good people?" We know this question does not apply. Through grace, God allowed the best good thing to happen to bad people. Then where is suffering? It is only an instrument through which our faith and hope is made stronger, because no circumstances can undo the reconciliation we have with God through Jesus Christ. (Romans 5: 3-5, Romans 5:9-11)
There is another consequence of a belief in Christianity. If being a “Christian” means truly being dead to sin, does that mean Christians can do whatever they want, even live in sin? (Romans 6:1) That doesn't seem like the proper response, but then in what sense are we "dead"? I used to think being "dead to sin" literally meant I completely stop sinning. But if that was truly the case, it would once again raise "the Christian" back onto a pedestal of perfection and we are back where we started.
There is something pivotal about how we understand what it means to be "dead to sin". It does not imply we can live however we want, nor does it imply we sin no longer. Sin is a "non issue" because it has been replaced with life. That means we can stop worrying about what we shouldn't do and start worrying about what we should do. (Romans 6:10-11) For example, consider a person struggling with an addiction. If this person believes Jesus died for his or her sins, this person is enabled to receive forgiveness every time he or she relapses. This is good, but this alone is insufficient to break the cycle of addiction. However, the Bible doesn't only say Jesus died for our sins. He was also raised back to life. If we are united with Christ in his death, how much more so are we united with him in his life! In other words, if being set free from sin was important, how much more important is the way we live as a result of that? (Romans 5:10)
What does this mean for the addict? To truly see the implications for the addict, we must stop worrying about the addiction for five seconds and ask a new question: How would Christ like us to live (even as an addict)? Admittedly, our knee-jerk reaction is still zeroed-in on the addiction. Would Christ like to see the addict free from the addiction? Certainly, but the same was true under the Old Covenant (repentance and sacrifice.) Let's instead ask, how does the New Covenant change how the addict should live, in a way that is distinct from what the Old Covenant called for? Fortunately, Christ was quite direct in how he called us to live: by serving others. So what if the addict were to set aside the twelve step plan long enough to sincerely engage in serving that community? What if the addict stopped focusing on what he or she needed to recover and began asking what other addicts and their families needed, then began to serve to that end?
Today, it wouldn't be surprising to hear someone say. "I used to have a problem with x, but since I became a Christian, I've been trying to quit." What if instead we heard, "I used to struggle with x, but since I became a Christian, I've begun to serve others engaged in the struggle."
Even if the addict stops focusing on his or her own recovery, it is through the act of service that the change in the addict's life begins to take place. And you know what else? If it isn't a perfect transition, it's okay, because Jesus still died for it. (Romans 7:14-25)That's what it means to be free! Yet the true healing doesn't come from the forgiveness of the sin. The healing comes from the new way of life in Jesus Christ. (Romans 6:17-18) When a person is completely cut free from the bonds of sin and living in Christ Jesus, the Bible calls that "living in the Spirit". With it comes "adoption to sonship". It's some flashy terminology, but what it means is God himself regards you in the same way he loves Jesus. (Romans 8:14-17) You can't shake that kind of status. (Romans 8:38-39)
What if Christian teaching began to focus more on the resurrection and less on the death? What if, as a result, you could hear a non-Christian say, "The Christian God is the God who changed this addict I used to know into a person who lives outside of themselves to serve others?"(Romans 7:4-6)