Chapter OneSuper Christian
On a blustery October night in a
church outside Minneapolis, several
hundred believers had gathered for
a three-day seminar. I began with a
one-hour presentation on the gospel
of grace and the reality of salvation.
Using Scripture, story, symbolism,
and personal experience, I focused
on the total sufficiency of the
redeeming work of Jesus Christ on
Calvary. The service ended with a
song and a prayer.
Leaving the church by a side door,
the pastor turned to his associate and
fumed, "Humph, that airhead didn't
say one thing about what we have to
do to earn our salvation!"
Something is radically wrong.
The bending of the mind by the
powers of this world has twisted the
gospel of grace into religious bondage
and distorted the image of God into an
eternal, small-minded bookkeeper.
The Christian community resembles
a Wall Street exchange of works
wherein the elite are honored
and the ordinary ignored. Love
is stifled, freedom shackled, and
self-righteousness fastened. The
institutional church has become a
wounder of the healers rather than
a healer of the wounded.
Put bluntly, the American church
today accepts grace in theory but
denies it in practice. We say we
believe that the fundamental
structure of reality is grace, not
works-but our lives refute our faith.
By and large, the gospel of grace is
neither proclaimed, understood, nor
lived. Too many Christians are living
in the house of fear and not in the
house of love.
Though the Scriptures insist on God's
initiative in the work of salvation-that
by grace we are saved, that
the Tremendous Lover has taken
to the chase-our spirituality often
starts with self, not God. Personal
responsibility has replaced
personal response. We talk about
acquiring virtue as if it were a skill
that can be attained, like good
handwriting or a well-grooved golf
swing. In the penitential seasons we
focus on overcoming our weaknesses,
getting rid of our hang-ups, and
reaching Christian maturity. We
sweat through various spiritual
exercises as if they were designed
to produce a Christian Charles Atlas.
Though lip service is paid to the
gospel of grace, many Christians live
as if only personal discipline and
self-denial will mold the perfect
me. The emphasis is on what I do
rather than on what God is doing. In
this curious process God is a benign
old spectator in the bleachers who
cheers when I show up for morning
WE BELIEVE THAT WE CAN PULL OURSELVES UP BY OUR
BOOTSTRAPS-INDEED, WE CAN DO IT OURSELVES.
SOONER OR LATER WE ARE CONFRONTED WITH THE PAINFUL
TRUTH OF OUR INADEQUACY AND INSUFFICIENCY. OUR SECURITY
IS SHATTERED AND OUR BOOTSTRAPS ARE CUT. ONCE THE FERVOR
HAS PASSED, WEAKNESS AND INFIDELITY APPEAR. WE DISCOVER
OUR INABILITY TO ADD EVEN A SINGLE INCH TO OUR SPIRITUAL
STATURE. THERE BEGINS A LONG WINTER OF DISCONTENT THAT
EVENTUALLY FLOWERS INTO GLOOM, PESSIMISM, AND A SUBTLE
DESPAIR-SUBTLE BECAUSE IT GOES UNRECOGNIZED, UNNOTICED,
AND THEREFORE UNCHALLENGED. IT TAKES THE FORM OF
BOREDOM, DRUDGERY. WE ARE OVERCOME BY THE
ORDINARINESS OF LIFE, BY DAILY DUTIES
DONE OVER AND OVER AGAIN.
SOMETHING IS RADICALLY WRONG
and puffing to
impress God, our
about trying to
in guilt are
God and are a
flat denial of the
gospel of grace.
Our approach to
the Christian life
is as absurd as
young man who
had just received
license and was
taken to see
Niagara Falls. He
studied it for a
minute and then
why am I afraid to dance?
why am I afraid to love?
why am I afraid to live?
We secretly admit that
the call of Jesus is
too demanding, that
surrender to the Spirit
is beyond our reach.
We start acting like
everyone else. Life takes
on a joyless, empty
quality. We begin to
resemble the leading
character in Eugene
O'Neill's play The Great
God Brown: "Why am I
afraid to dance, I who
love music and rhythm
and grace and song
and laughter? Why am
I afraid to live, I who
love life and the beauty
of flesh and the living
colors of the earth and
sky and sea? Why am I
afraid to love, I who love
I BELIEVE the Reformation
actually began the day Martin
Luther was praying over the
meaning of Paul's assertion
that the gospel reveals the
righteousness of God to us-it
shows how faith leads to faith.
In other words, the RIGHTEOUS
SHALL FIND LIFE THROUGH
FAITH (see Romans 1:17).
Like many Christians today,
Luther wrestled through the
this core question: How could the gospel of
Christ be truly called "GOOD NEWS" if God
is a righteous judge who rewards the good and
punishes the evil? Did Jesus really have to
revelation of God in Christ Jesus be accurately
called "news" since the Old Testament carried
the same theme, or for that matter, "good" with
the threat of punishment hanging like a dark
cloud over the valley of history?
But as Jaroslav Pelikan notes:
Luther suddenly broke through
to the insight that the "righteousness of God"
that Paul spoke of in this passage was
not the righteousness by which God
was righteous in himself (that would
be passive righteousness) but the
righteousness by which, for the sake of
Jesus Christ, God made sinners righteous
(that is, active righteousness)
through the FORGIVENESS of sins in
justification. When he discovered that,
Luther said it was as though the very
gates of Paradise had been opened to him.