Two sayings broken beyond repair

penWhen I was a boy and something broke, I’d take it to my dad. In my mind, he could fix anything. We’d go down in the basement to his work bench where we’d poke around in some of the boxes and containers. One tube of epoxy glue, one vice and 24 hours of patience later, whatever had been broken was as good as new.

Sometimes it’s not just objects that are broken. Sayings can be broken, too. Sometimes they can be fixed; other times, they’re beyond repair.

One of Israel’s favorite proverbs was broken and could not be fixed:

What do you mean by this proverb of yours about the land of Israel: ‘When parents eat unripe grapes, the children’s teeth suffer’? As surely as I live, says the LORD God, no longer will you use this proverb in Israel! (Ezekiel 18:2-3, CEB).

The proverb had become an excuse to shift blame. The rest of chapter 18 drives home the point that we must not blame our sins on those who came before us. Each of us is morally responsible before God as individuals.

Could what was true in Ezekiel’s day be true in ours? Is God asking us to jettison some sayings that have become counterproductive? Here are two that – like a dusty can of corn whose expiration date has passed – should be tossed in the trash, no longer fit for human consumption.

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace.”

God’s grace is an amazing thing! Without it, we would be lost (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11). But in practice, we don’t read all the way to the end of the sentence. We get bogged down in the first four words, putting a full-stop where it doesn’t belong: “I’m just a sinner.”

The result is a sinning religion, a Christianity full of forgiveness but devoid of Christlikeness. We “get saved,” meaning that we’ve tucked our ticket for heaven in our wallet or purse for safekeeping. Now – so we think – we can do what we please. In theological terms, we may have been justified but we’ve stopped short of sanctification. The summit of the mountain lies ahead, but we’re satisified to camp out in the foothills.

Yet God invites us to climb higher. The lowlands of sin are behind us and there’s no turning back. Paul reminds the Corinthians that – while sin was a part of their past – it is no longer what they are about (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). And because of this, Peter insists: “You will be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, CEB). 

“I’m just a sinner saved by grace” can be an entry ramp to the highway of spiritual compromise. It’s the travel companion of similar sayings like “I’m not perfect, just forgiven.” It rationalizes our sinful ways by conditioning us to live with a divided heart, forgetting that those who are double-minded are “unstable in all their ways” (James 1:8, CEB). Yet Christ calls us to a deeper life, one characterized by joyfully living into the ways of God. John Wesley called it “holiness of heart and life,” understanding that the very essence of holiness is love for God and others (Mark 12:28-34).

“Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

If love is the very essence of holiness, then we must address a second saying that claims to be loving. But is it?

Hate the sin, love the sinner.

The saying at a certain level sounds like Paul: “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9, NIV). But can we ignore the repulsive effect that the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb has upon listeners? It is often in social media conversations around sexuality that well-intentioned Christians trot out the proverb, thinking all the while that they’re being graceful in doing so. But any communication has two parties, a transmitter and a receiver. Effective communication only happens when the message transmitted is accurately decoded by the listener in the way that the sender intended.  And it is here that the breakdown occurs. The first phrase – “Hate the sin” – begins with the imperative, “Hate.” Like a flash-bang grenade tossed into the conversation, it deafens the listener to any words that follow. They never hear “love the sinner” because the only message they’ve received is that they are “the sinner” who is hated. If our objective is an evangelistic conversation, has the door just slammed shut? 

Some have suggested reversing the words so that the saying becomes: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” At least we then lead with love, not judgment. This seems closer to Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). First, he pronounced words of love to her: “Neither do I condemn you” (11a, CEB). Then, he instructed her to abandon her wrongdoing: “Go, and from now on, don’t sin any more” (11b). 

But I still wonder if the saying is beyond repair. Even if we lead with love by frontloading the words “love the sinner,” the proverb still has a whiff of smug judgmentalism about it. Phylicia Masonheimer asks:

Do we actually hate sin, or do we simply love judgment?

In “hate the sin, love the sinner,” the couplet “the sinner” comes across as clinical, like a medical journal article discussing “the patient.” It’s cold, aloof, and off-putting, like when a man talks publicly about “the wife.” What listener wants to have the verbal label “the sinner” taped on their chest? While it is theologically correct as a description of those who have not yet come to Christ (Romans 3:23, 1 John 1:10), we need God’s wisdom to know when is the right time as a relationship develops to speak of sin and its meaning. In our social media interactions, we forget that often we have not yet earned the right to speak at that deeper level, that many of our readers are still ripening to God through the action of prevenient grace. Our words will either stir up that grace or douse it. Experience tells us that whatever our intentions, the “hate the sin, love the sinner” proverb pushes people away.  Isn’t it time for it to go?

Summing it all up

My dad was gifted at fixing broken objects. Sometimes when sayings are broken, they, too, can be mended. But there are other times when it’s best to just throw them out. The expressions “I’m just a sinner saved by grace” and “Hate the sin, love the sinner” are two such popular sayings, well-intended but counteproductive. May the Holy Spirit help us to be sensitive to these and other sayings that produce negative effects.

 

 

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Going up the down escalator

Escalator_in_Japan_(6394120847)

Admit it. You’ve done it, too.

Maybe you were in some department store at a time when few were around. You could have taken the escalator going in the right direction, but what fun is that? So you looked down to make sure your shoe laces were tied, then stepped onto the rolling metal steps. You shifted into high gear, then started straining against the tide, pumping your legs at double-speed. Chances are you got some dirty looks along the way, but a minute later you raised your arms at the top in Rocky-like triumph:

You made it up the down escalator.

What you did was totally optional. After all, to make it to a higher level, you could have done what you usually do. You could have just taken the “up” escalator. But something strange has been happening lately. More escalators seem to be going down.

Marijuana? “Legalize its recreational use nationally,” some say, even though it is causing big problems for one state that already has.

Pornography? “No big deal,” though South Dakota and Virginia think otherwise.

Coarse language? “They’re only words. Take a chill pill!”

Cheating on exams? “Ya gotta do what ya gotta do.”

Undocumented workers and their children? “Send them back to where they came from!” makes a popular talking point, despite the fact that many are high achievers and are contributing to the nation’s well-being.

Lesbian daughter? “Kick her to the curb until she straightens out. What would people at church think, after all?” (So now we have many homeless LGBTQ youth.)

These days, we seem to be flocking to the down escalators, dulling our senses, hardening our hearts and consciences, even as we sink to lower-and-lower levels. To buck the trend – to get to the next floor up – we’ll have to brush off an old skill:

We’ll need to gather our strength, steel our resolve, and walk up the down escalator.

The Bible can help. Paul reminds us in Romans 12:2 (NLT):

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

There are those who resist the tide. Former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson brought his son back home, pulling the talented player from the Nebraska football program. His reason? Keyshawn Jr. got distracted by university party life and was busted for marijuana. He forget why he was there in the first place, to excel at football. Fans applauded the unusual decision by a strict and caring dad.

Thankfully, some “up” escalators still function. Find them and use them; invite others to join you. Volunteer for Little League. Take your son or daughter along to visit an old friend at the nursing home. Make it a family activity to help pass out food at your church’s food pantry. There are many ways to keep your community’s “up” escalators well-oiled and in-service. In so doing, we’ll be modeling – as Rick Warren insists – that “it’s not about you.”

Sometimes your community’s “up” escalators are broken; all escalators are rolling downward. It’s decision time. When you exert yourself and walk up the down escalator, rest assured: You’ll get dirty looks. Pressure will mount for you to go with the flow. Don’t give in! Get enough people walking against the grain and someone’s bound to ask what happened to all the up escalators.

Meanwhile, don’t grow tired. Join with others who are going up and encourage each other. When you land at the top, thank the Lord, then have your moment of Rocky-like triumph, together.

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Photo credit

By Yuko Honda from Tokyo, Japan (何の気なしに乗ると予想外の動きをするのでうわっ!てなるエスカレーター。) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holiness for the MP3 generation- Part 3

dchUse the word “holiness” and – for some – memories of campmeetings and old-time revival preachers come to mind. Yet for those born since 2000, such things mean little. For a new generation more comfortable with social media than altar calls, new methods of communicating a timeless message are needed.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we looked at biblical and historical perspectives on holiness as described in Diane Leclerc’s Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill, 2010). In this the final installment, we turn to what Leclerc calls “Holiness Theology for Today.” Leclerc succeeds in mining the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage then bridging from the 18th century Methodist Revival and the 19th Century Holiness Movement to the 21st century, freshening up teachings on the Fall, full salvation, and five other holiness motifs (purity, perfection, power, character, and love).

Let us look at two themes from the latter portion of the book, namely, sin and God’s nature of holy love.

Sin

Chapter 6, “Created and Fallen Humanity,” addresses what may be termed the “problem” prior to later chapters exposing God’s gracious solution. Leclerc is correct to note the divergent definitions that Wesleyans and Calvinists use for “sin”:

…Wesleyans and Calvinists argue over the issue of sin. Their arguments are based on two very different understandings of what sin is. According to John Calvin, sin is falling short of the glory of God, or missing the mark. Thus any non-Godlike qualities or imperfections in humanity are considered sinful. Understandably then, a Calvinist could claim that we sin in thought, word, and deed daily. Most would simply say that we are sinful because we are not God (Leclerc, 160).

Leclerc does well to elucidate the reasoning behind the Calvinistic pessimism regarding sin. When seen in this way, it may be questioned whether John Wesley is very far from John Calvin on this point considering that Wesley admitted “infirmities” remain no matter how deep the sanctifying work of God in the human heart. Where we as Wesleyan-Holiness people sometimes go wrong, however, is excusing wrong attitudes or actions with the catch-all “I’m only human” rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to scrutinize and correct them.

 

Leclerc
Diane LeClerc

 

God’s nature as “holy love”

A second discussion that Leclerc engages is the question of God’s nature. Some – such as Ray Dunning and Ken Collins – have argued that the phrase “holy love” is an apt summary of God’s character. In Collins’ The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Abingdon, 2007), every chapter title incorporates in the words “holy love,” and Collins quotes Wesley’s repeated use of the expression “holy love” to sustain his thesis. Thomas Jay Oord, however, has argued that the term “holy love” is tautological, a needless piling up of words. If the nature of holiness is love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31) – as Wesley taught- then saying that God is “holy love” adds nothing since “holy” is already contained in the idea of love.* (For more on love as the “core of holiness,” see Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl, Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love [Beacon Hill, 2005], 70-72).

It is apparent that Leclerc is familiar with the debate between these two theologians. To her credit, she attempts to steer a middle course:

‘God is love,’ John says simply and profoundly. We may modify God’s love with the word ‘holy.’ But this adds little to an understanding of God because by nature God’s love is holy. The modifier ‘holy’ does remind us, however, that God is beyond us as other than us. God is holy and always different from us in nature (Leclerc, 274).

Leclerc has put her finger on an important duality in the doctrine of God. The LORD is both “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6) and in Christ, God is “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matthew 1:23). There is both transcendence and immanence in God. To say that God is love underscores God’s immanence, but to say that God is holy love maintains in tension God’s transcendence and immanence, as does the whole tenor of Scripture. The truth of 1 John 4:8 must be balanced with passages like Isaiah 6, otherwise our view of God may become skewed.

Summing it all up

Though strong overall, one weakness of Discovering Christian Holiness is the lack of an index, a frustration for readers trying to locate specific passages in a hefty volume. Hopefully future editions will remedy this unfortunate omission. Yet whatever its shortcomings, Diane Leclerc has written an excellent book that will serve well both church and academy for years to come.

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*from a conversation with Dr Oord

 

Holiness for the MP3 generation – Part 2

dchCicero in 46 BC observed: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.” In Part 1 of Discovering Christian Holiness (Beacon Hill, 2010), Diane LeClerc examines the biblical foundation for holiness. (You can read my essay on Part 1 by clicking here). Now in Part 2, true to Cicero’s adage, she fills us in on the history of holiness doctrine, on “what happened” before our time, providing a panoramic view of the centuries. What emerges is strong evidence that – far from being a oddity – holiness has remained an important theological concern for thinkers across the ages.

The terrain LeClerc traverses is vast. In this short essay, we turn our attention to three selected themes (or persons) that she covers, namely: 1) holiness and asceticism; 2) Jerome, and 3) Mildred Bangs Wynkoop.

Holiness and asceticism

Western evangelicalism is recovering an appreciation for ancient faith, including the spiritual disciplines practiced by monks. In Chapter 3, LeClerc lists “radical asceticsim” among the “important elements in the development of an early theology of the holy” (p. 80). When persecution of Christians waned following the rise of Constantine in the early 4th century, treating one’s body harshly became an alternative to martyrdom.

Though LeClerc does not develop the theme too deeply, it is worthwhile to consider the rise of renewal movements historically. For example, in 18th century England, a non-demanding form of Christian faith held sway, similar to how being a Christian became socially advantageous under Constantine. The Methodist movement – like ancient monasticism – demanded much more of its adherents. There were rules of conduct, and if individuals refused to follow them, becoming what John Wesley called “disorderly walkers,” they were unceremoniously booted out of the Methodist societies. So while there were no early Methodist monks, the Methodist spirit certainly contained ascetic elements.

In Wesleyan-Holiness churches today, have we maintained ascetic elements, or have we “lowered the bar” much like in Constantine’s time? In her foreword to Gregory Crofford’s Mere Ecclesiology: Finding Your Place in the Church’s Mission (Wipf & Stock, 2016), JoAnne Lyon observes: “I believe that one reason for overall declining membership in the church, particularly in the West, is that there is no challenge” (p. ix). LeClerc reminds us that monasticism was accompanied by a concern for rigourous living, a non-conformity to the broader societal dubious moral norms. While the danger of legalism is always present, we would do well to revisit what spiritual challenges we offer youth who have grown weary of the libertinism of our day.

Jerome (347-420 AD)

In addition to asceticism, LeClerc gives two pages to Jerome. Known mostly for his Scripture translation (the Latin Vulgate), I was fascinated to learn the strong influence Jerome had on early Christian views of marriage. Jerome came to teach that those who are married are in some sense less holy than those who live a life of celibacy.  LeClerc notes: “He (Jerome) praised countless women for leaving husbands and children behind so that they could be entirely devoted to God” (p. 96).

What are we to make of this? It is undeniable that Christians across history have had an uneasy relationship with sexuality. It is unfortunate that something holy made by God to be celebrated is instead denigrated, even in backhanded ways, like that of Jerome. Though most evangelicals today would deny that there is a hierarchy of sins, it is striking how often sexual sins get top billing and other sins that Scripture mentions far more frequently – such as neglecting the poor – receive little attention. It is time that we get over our fixation upon things sexual and recast the pursuit of holiness in far broader terms.

Mildred Bangs Wynkoop (1905-97)

In Chapter 4, LeClerc moves to a survey of important holiness figures from 1703 to 2000 AD. Beginning with John Wesley, she profiles a total of 32 men and women who have contributed subsantially to the Wesleyan-Holiness theological heritage. It is a source of pride for those in our tradition to see both genders on this list, yet gender aside, Mildred Bangs Wynkoop rightfully receives positive treatment by the author. LeClerc credits her for having “revolutionized the way the doctrine of holiness was articulated in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition” (p. 127). This revolution was conceptualizing holiness in terms of relationship rather than in terms of eradicating sin, a recovery of a neglected emphasis in the theology of John Wesley (1703-91), namely, holiness as loving God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31).

mildred bangs wynkoop
Mildred Bangs Wynkoop

This took courage for Wynkoop at a time when most holiness preachers envisioned the “flesh” or the “sinful nature” as a thing, like a bad tooth that needed to be extracted, or a tree stump that God uproots. Wynkoop moved past these problematic subtantival conceptions and in their place taught a more dynamic way of picturing sanctification, as the ongoing pursuit of relationship. Summarizing Wynkoop’s theology, LeClerc concludes:

Our capacity for relationships, for loving relationships, is our God-given purpose and destiny. There is a God-designed holy manner for relating to God, to others, and even to ourselves. Sin distorts these relationships. God-derived love restores them. Holiness, then, is found most clearly when we love as God first loved us (p. 127).

Today’s holiness preachers take for granted the relational way of talking about God’s work in our lives, not realizing that Wynkoop ushered in a paradigm shift of immense proportions.

Summing it all up

Ascetism, Jerome, and Mildred Wynkoop are just three elements in Part 2 of Discovering Christian Holiness. Diane LeClerc traces many others in two chapters that are a veritable smorgasbord of information about our holiness forebearers, each one worthy of a book-length treatment of their own. LeClerc does a good job of pointing us to the forest. Let the reader journey into the woods and discover the many trees.


 

Image credit (Mildred Bangs Wynkoop): Asbury E-Place

 

Holiness for the MP3 generation: Part 1

What is the central theme of the Bible? For the theological descendants of John Wesley (1703-91), the answer has always been holiness. Yet if the holiness legacy is to continue, each generation must articulate it in contemporary terms. Otherwise, the message risks becoming a dusty relic, like an old 78 record you’d find in your great-grandparents’ attic. You know it holds great music, but if anyone is going to hear it today, you have to translate it into MP3 format.

Diane LeClerc does for holiness theology what has been needed for some time. In Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Beacon Hill, 2010), LeClerc is a bridge between generations. Conversant with the way Wesleyan theologians have articulated our message in times gone by, she updates it for today’s readers. In so doing, she conserves what is best from our 18th, 19th, and 20th century heritage then converts it into a format more likely to communicate effectively in the 21st century.

Discovering Christian Holiness has become the go-to textbook for courses on the doctrine of holiness. It is not hard to understand why. At just over 300 pages, it is expansive enough to over all the major themes yet concise enough to not intimidate the newcomer. The book is divided into four parts:

Part 1 – Biblical Holiness

Part 2 – Holiness History

Part 3 – Holiness Theology for Today

Part 4 – Holy Living for a New Century

In the remainder of this essay, we will look at selected themes from the Introduction and Part 1. Subsequent essays will address the content of Parts 2-4.

Key elements of Wesleyan theology

In the Introduction, Diane LeClerc lays out five “key elements” of Wesleyan theology (see pp. 19-30):

  1. It arises out of the biography of John Wesley;
  2. It is soteriologically founded;
  3. It is thoroughly optimistic;
  4. It is practical;
  5. It is foundational to holiness theology

I especially appreciate the third point, sometimes called the “optimism of grace.” As a parent, I’ve noticed that children in general will live up (or down) to expectations. If we expect kindness  from our son or daughter, most of the time they will be kind, even if from time-to-time they are not. In the same way, if our preaching emphasizes that the Holy Spirit enables us to live above sin, we usually will, even if from time-to-time we stumble (1 John 2:1). LeClerc summarizes it well: “Sin need no longer reign in the heart. An outpouring of love into the heart ‘excludes sin.’ We can live truly holy lives” (p. 27).

While the five points provide a good summary, LeClerc follows conventional wisdom on John Wesley’s ministry in Georgia, calling it a “debacle” (p. 22). However, Geordan Hammond in his John Wesley in America (Oxford, 2014) provides a more postive picture, seeing Georgia as a “laboratory for implementing his views of primitive Christianity” (Preface, vii). It is doubtful whether Hammond’s research was available at the time LeClerc was writing Discovering Christian Holiness. Nonetheless, a second edition would do well to reference Hammond’s work as a balancing voice.

Leclerc
Diane LeClerc, Professor of Historical Theology, Northwest Nazarene University

The hermeneutic of love

How should Wesleyans interpret Scripture, especially the doctrine of holiness? We do so through the lens of love. LeClerc explains:

Other traditions might interpret God’s holiness in light of God’s power or God’s sovereignty or God’s justice. The Wesleyan-Holiness interpreter does not ignore these themes about God. But by interpreting God’s holiness in light of God’s love, he or she may reach different conclusions about God’s character than those reached by others (p. 54).

Having ruled out the possibility of not having an intepretive lens – or, as LeClerc calls it, being “just a Bible Christian” (p. 34) – LeClerc admits that employing love as a Wesleyan hermeneutical lens is “not without its difficulties” (p. 54). Currently, I am singing tenor in a production of Handel’s “Israel in Egypt.” One song celebrates that God “smote all the firstborn of Egypt.” Paul – a fellow tenor and fellow believer – whispered to me during one of the pauses: “Why would God do that?” The tradition of a “death angel” sometimes is invoked, but Handel was correct: It was not an intermediary that did God’s bloody bidding; it was God himself who directly acted (Exodus 12:29). For these reasons, I question whether love by itself is sufficient as a hermeneutical lens. In stories like the killing of the firstborn of Egyptians, some other characteristic in God’s nature is in view. One may forgive Calvinists for thinking love is too narrow a hermeneutic even if Wesleyans likewise charge that sovereignty has the same weakness. For this reason, it is useful to maintain the adjective “holy” when describing the essence of God as holy love, as do Wesleyan theologians Ray Dunning and Ken Collins. It is in the phrase “holy love” that the importance of God’s honor comes into view, a key consideration in many non-Western cultures that speaking only of “love” does not seem to encompass.

Holiness as the “presence of the good”

In a section entitled “New Testament Images of Holiness,” LeClerc describes holiness in the New Testament as “holistic.” By this she means that “holiness is not just the absence of sin but also the presence of the good. The holy person, then, acts in love and does not simply avoid the unholy” (p. 64). This insight first came home to me in Ken Abram’s book, Positive Holiness: Enjoy the Freedom of Holiness (1988). In short, holiness is not just what I don’t do; more importantly, it is what I do. Some – such as Old Testament scholar Dwight Swanson – have gone further, underscoring the infectious nature of holiness in the New Testament. Whereas in the Old Testament individuals withdrew in order to avoid having their holiness in some way contaminated, in the New Testament – such as when Jesus heals the leper (Matthew 8:1-4) – the direction is inverted; it is cleanness that “infects” uncleanness. LeClerc’s comment about holiness being the “presence of the good” is in-line with Swanson’s observation, a recognition that any holiness sermon that never gets to the positive side of the ledger is incomplete.

Passages “pushed beyond their limits”

In Chapter 2 – “The Whole Holy Tenor of Scripture” – LeClerc does a masterful job. In the space of just 23 pages, she paints the broad panorama of holiness in both Testaments. However, in the middle of the presentation, she asks: “Are there any passages that have been pushed beyond their limits in attempt to support a specific theology of sanctification?” (p. 63). She subsequently does name a few Scripture portions that have been variously intepreted, such as Romans 6-8 and the Spirit baptism passages in Acts. However, I could find nowhere where LeClerc corrects exaggerated interpretations. It’s possible that she wrote something that was subsequently cut by the editor. In any case, the question ends up unnecessarily raising hopes that are then unfulfilled.

Summing it all up

Preachers who are looking for study material for holiness sermons will find a rich deposit in Part 1 of Discovering Christian Holiness. Diane LeClerc succeeds at both introducing the topic of the book and – by addressing what the Bible has to say about holiness – accentuates that Wesleyan-Holiness doctrine first-and-foremost is based upon Scripture. I look forward to reading the remaining parts of the book and reviewing them for my readers.

Catchy slogan, bad theology

not-perfect-just-forgivenYou’ve seen the t-shirts, ball caps, and bumper stickers:

“I’m not perfect, just forgiven.”

It’s a catchy slogan. The problem is, it’s bad theology.

To be fair, who wouldn’t want to celebrate forgiveness? God’s pardon of our sins, after all, is at the heart of the Gospel (Romans 5:1, 1 John 1:9). This is known as justification. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, God has accepted us. When we welcome Christ into our lives, turning away from our sin, we are adopted; we become part of God’s family (John 1:12; Romans 8:15; Acts 3:19).

Where the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” mantra goes off the rails is in the first phrase: “I’m not perfect.” The problem is, Jesus himself called us to be perfect in love:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48, NIV).

Too often, people quote only v. 48, not taking into account the preceding verses. Jesus is not calling us to an absolute perfection. Such a state of affairs does not exist this side of the Second Coming. John Wesley (1703-91) correctly taught that we will always live with a thousand “infirmities,” which include forgetfulness, misunderstandings, good intentions gone wrong, and the like. But this does not exempt us from perfection in love. The Common English Bible catches this nuance well: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (v. 48).

Wesley always asked about his preachers: “Are you going on to perfection?” He longed for them to grow, for their love to become complete. Justification (forgiveness) is not the end, just the beginning! Sanctification (the ongoing process of cleansing) begins when God forgives us. The one who has experienced the lavish grace of Christ naturally wants to go deeper with God, what Peter calls growing in grace and in the knowledge of Jesus (2 Peter 3:18). Like a healthy baby doesn’t stay a baby for long but progresses through life’s stages – toddler, child, teen, adult – so a new follower of Jesus grows up in his or her faith.

But let’s go back to the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” mantra. As currently promoted, it stunts the growth of Christians. A follower of Jesus who is growing up in their faith will naturally be filled more-and-more with God’s love (Ephesians 3:14-21). If being “forgiven but not perfect” becomes an excuse for not loving, for mistreating a fellow believer or one who has no profession of Christian faith, then the saying may become a weapon in the hands of the devil.

It might not be a catchy slogan, but a more accurate ball-cap would read:

“Are you forgiven, too? Let’s grow together.”

My love is not yet complete. Is yours? If not, then let’s toss aside slogans that stamp a misguided seal of approval on sin. Let’s spur each other on and refuse to excuse each other’s failings as if no other outcome is possible. There is victory in Jesus!

Incarnation and holiness

mangerIt’s a persistent theme across the centuries. Spirit is good; flesh is evil.

Some of the ancient Greek philosophers taught the exaltation of the soul and the denigration of the body. Plato extolled the immortal soul while Gnosticism later picked up the theme, infecting early Christianity with the notion that salvation is achieved only when the soul is liberated from the prison house of corrupt flesh. Augustine never escaped the lure of this view, implying the dirtiness of the body by teaching that original sin is passed down through the procreative act.

The negative Greek view of human flesh is what makes the reaction to Paul’s teaching in Acts 17 understandable. He met with a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosphers at Mars Hill in Athens (17:18). At first, they gave him a polite hearing as he attempted to build a bridge to them, speaking of the altar he had discovered which bore the inscription “to an unknown God” (v. 23). But then Paul lost his audience as quickly as he had gained it. What did he do wrong? He affirmed that God had raised Jesus from the dead (v. 31). Nothing bespeaks the value and goodness of the human body like God’s willingness to restore one to life. The philosophers would have none of it.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of the story. Long before Easter comes Christmas. While Easter is the feast of the resurrection, Christmas is the feast of the incarnation:

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, CEB).

The eternal, Triune God who had made all that is and pronounced it “good” (Genesis 1) tabernacles among us as Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23) thereby dignifying humble flesh. If the Gnostics were correct to believe that the pure spirit of divinity could never stoop to inhabit a corrupt human body, then the incarnation becomes a non-sense. Yet we are not Gnostics and should resist their false teaching. Christian orthodoxy affirms that whatever the disobedience of Adam and Eve may have done to the human condition, God still sees in our body something already very good, something worth saving and perfecting.

Christmas as the moment when the Word became flesh is the celebration of God’s good creation as symbolized by the tiny body of a baby boy. Our body was never meant to be viewed as a brake on our spiritual progress, as something that weighs down our escape from this world. Far from a hindrance to our relationship with God, the body – properly viewed – becomes an instrument of praise. For every follower of Christ, our body becomes the very temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Our body – what God already pronounced “supremely good” (Genesis 1:31, CEB) – we give back to the Lord so that it may be purified and set apart for sacred use (Romans 12:1-2). We worship God with our body. In so doing, our body becomes a vehicle the Lord can use for holy purposes.

The next time you are tempted to think of your body as an obstacle to fulfilling God’s mission in your life, remember that the eternal Christ never spurned a body. Instead, he saw the incarnation as necessary, a human body as essential to fulfilling his divine calling. This Christmas, let us thank God for the body he has given us, and with joy give our body back to him for his sacred use.

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Image credit: Tou Logoi Logou