Wednesday, June 14, 2017

He Died for Sinners


Because attendance typically dips during the summer months, we suspend our full Sunday school offerings and, instead, offer one class for youth and adults and one class for children. The adult class is the "Articles Class," in which one of the clergy presents a few articles from the week's news for us to read together and discuss. Last Sunday, one of my articles was a NPR piece on Senator Bernie Sanders' interrogation of Russell Vought, whom President Trump has nominated to serve as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget. The reason I chose that article was because Senator Sanders took issue with Mr. Vought's evangelical Christian belief that non-Christians go to hell. The senator felt that disqualified Mr. Vought from serving in that capacity, and I wanted to discuss with the class 1) what is our belief in hell, 2) what does it mean to hold religious beliefs that are exclusionary, 3) do such beliefs disqualify someone from public service, and 4) how do we personally navigate that line between believing something and letting it affect the way we treat others. Today, however, I want to highlight another problem from the article itself.

In the article, the NPR staff interviewed a number of people with different religious perspectives. One of them was Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He indicated that Mr. Vought's view of hell is not atypical of evangelical Christians, that it is found directly in the New Testament, and that it is not necessarily "hostile." But the way NPR edited one of his quotations grabbed my attention: "'In Christian theology, no one is righteous before God,' he said. '[Evangelical] Christians don't believe that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. Christians believe that all of humanity is fallen.'" (I've left the emphasis and brackets exactly as they appear in the published article.) Do you see that presumed insertion of the word "Evangelical?" The author may have been substituting "evangelical" for something like "this type of," so I may need to point a finger at Mr. Moore instead of Camila Domonske, the author, or her editors, but to imply that only evangelical Christians believe that good people don't go to heaven on their own merits is profoundly to misunderstand all of Christianity.

We don't believe that good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell. And by "we" I mean all Christians. That isn't unique to evangelicals. If you believe in Jesus, you must believe in grace, and grace leaves absolutely zero room for getting to heaven because we are good people.

This Sunday, we will hear a familiar phrase from Romans 5: "Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." Don't let your familiarity with those words rob them of their power: while we were sinners Christ died for us. This is fundamental to the Christian faith. God loves us enough to do something about it when we didn't deserve it. And that "something" is to send his Son into the world to live and die and be raised from the dead so that we might be set free from sin and the consequence of sin, which is death. If Jesus came to save us from our sins, he cannot have come as a response to our sinlessness. In Jesus, God did not reward humanity for its efforts. On the contrary, God stepped in because of our sin and saved us anyway. This is the bedrock of Christianity. It is the bedrock of our hope. It sets us free from the false belief--the inescapable trap--that we have to be good enough to get to heaven. This is the best news in the history of humanity. This is the whole reason Christianity is a religion in the first place.

But I don't blame Ms. Domonske, her editors, or anyone else in the media for thinking that only firebrand evangelicals believe that heaven isn't a reward for good works. That's what every other religion will tell you, and, unfortunately, it's what many, many Christian preachers (evangelicals, too) will mistakenly preach as the Gospel. Our human instinct to expect reward for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior is so strong that it causes us to rewrite the Gospel of Christ. We turn the unconditional love of God into something that depends on going to church, saying your prayers, reading the Bible, giving intellectual assent to a statement of faith, raising your children the "right" way, being nice to strangers, listening to the "right" radio stations, wearing the "right" clothes, eating the "right" food. That's ridiculous! But we do it. All of us. Me, too. We want to place conditions on God's unconditional love because it's easier to understand that way, because it's easier to justify our condemnation of the people we think deserve our condemnation, because it's easier to believe in rewards than unmerited favor. But that's all wrong.

If we cannot believe that while we were still sinners Christ died for us, we are truly lost. That's the first step to seeing salvation. Salvation must begin with our need for salvation. Our participation in grace depends upon our willingness to accept grace as grace--not as a reward for good works but as unearned, undeserved love. Without it, Jesus is just another guy who says, "Maybe the world will be a better place if we love each other," and whose words we cast aside as another optimist's dream. That love is only possible through grace. We can only love each other like that if we see that we are loved like that. The world can only be the place that Jesus sees it can be if it is built upon grace. Otherwise, we're all damned...and I mean that literally.

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