Isn’t Christianity About Being Good?
I’m still playing catch-up on the current webinar based on Help My Unbelief by Fleming Rutledge. Here’s the link for the tape to the second session, which took place on May 2. By the way, I’m not on this tape as I missed the session because I was traveling.
This 2nd session focused on the first three sermons in the section headed “Guilt and Innocence: Justification by Grace Through Faith.” Many of you will recognize those words, “Justification by Grace Through Faith” as one of the great hallmarks of the Protestant Reformation. It’s the kind of thing that gets turned into a slogan and is often repeated by not so often understood. The ten sermons in this section do a great job of revivifying that phrase.
Fleming also inserts what we might call contemporary questions people ask about Christianity as sub-headings for various sermons. Two of these three speak to the question which is my title, “Isn’t Christianity About Being Good?”
If you asked me that as a young person I might have said “Yes, basically, Christianity is about being good.” That’s what I took from my growing up and carried into young adulthood. There are a couple problems with this. One is that it isn’t actually what the Christian faith is about. Another is that thinking this way, we tend to divide the world into the “good people” and the “bad people,” and guess which group we are in?
Third, it leads to a faith that is constantly devoted to doing more good to prove to ourselves and others that we are the good people. As such, it is not only self-deceiving, it is exhausting.
As I have said elsewhere, Christianity is not about all the stuff we have to do to get on God’s good side or all the stuff we have to do to show other people that we are on God’s side. No. It is about God, in a crucified and risen Christ, taking our side, and God’s promise to never — no matter what — leave our side.
Some years ago something called “Transactional Analysis” was big. The TA mantra was “I’m okay, You’re okay.” Some wag came out with the Christian version, which went, “I’m Not Okay, You’re Not Okay; But’s That Okay.”
Christianity says we are all — no exceptions — sinners who stand in need of grace. Some of the worst sinners are precisely those who are convinced they aren’t sinners, that they are the righteous. Hence Jesus was always in trouble with the “good people,” (who thought they had achieved goodness themselves) while being more at home with the “bad people” (those who knew they needed mercy). Remember the great line from Pascal? “The world isn’t divided between saints and sinners,” wrote Pascal, “but between sinners who believe themselves to be saints, and saints who know themselves to be sinners.”
To be clear, church is very often presented and understood as “the good people,” complete with all manner of ways to achieve and evidence our goodness and distinguish ourselves from others who aren’t in the club.
But that has it completely wrong. Church is not a gathering of the righteous or the perfect, but for the unrighteous and imperfect, for all those afflicted in Francis Spufford’s term, by the HPtFtU, the “human propensity to fuck things up.” Church is, to quote FS again, “the International League of the Guilty.”
Like many, I have come to think that the people in the church basement, that is the AA and other 12-Step groups, often get right what we who are upstairs in the sanctuary do not. Everyone downstairs understands they got stuff, that they have made mistakes and failed in one of more of the great variety of ways we humans do manage to fuck up.
In the basement, that’s the starting point. “I need help. I need help from a power greater than me, greater than us, from beyond myself. Yes, I have my part to play in putting things right, in the mending, but I can only do so by relying on a grace and mercy not my own.”
Here’s an excerpt from one of the sermons in this section:
“There have always been two contrasting ways of understanding human nature. Either we are basically good and sin is an aberration, or we are all sinners and goodness is a miraculous gift of God. If human nature is basically kind and gentle, then we don’t need a Savior, we can just ‘be religious’ and we’ll do fine. Most people, I think, take this ‘kinder and gentler’ position. But we need to understand that it’s not Biblical.” “Religion” in that sentence means a human system for getting to or on God’s good side.
What the Bible tells us is, as noted above, is that we are all sinners in need of grace. Even better, there is grace. There’s only one catch, you have to know you need it.
On to session three, happening a little later today.