by Mark Hertenstein
Mark is a Senior Staff Columnist; he writes our monthly "Protestant Perspective" column.
One of the things I detest the most is hearing from Christians that “God meets me where I am.” To quote Joel Osteen, who builds entire sermons and a corporate message of health-wealth gospel in his books (not unlike the indulgence sellers of old), “You are accepted by God.” Yes, he confirmed that he means everyone in a later interview.
Now I am not about to say God doesn’t love everyone. That would be bad theology and contrary to the Christian message. Rather what often lies behind statements like those above is an amorphous sense of sin as something that maybe happens from time to time, of a God who just ignores it, of a Christ without the cross.
That is a cop-out. It is a false sense of security, an ignorance of fact. If one proclaims himself a Christian, statements such as this negate any sense of why Christ and the cross are important. If the central moment of all of history is that event, but one waters down the reason why (answer: our sinfulness), what is the point exactly?
What it comes down to is the fact that we will all admit that we do wrong, we sin, but we refuse to see our own sinfulness and our need for the cross. Therein lies the idea that we are accepted. Without sin, God only lifts up, and thus God is merely a grandfatherly figure who chuckles and simply picks up his grandchild and accepts him or her with ignorance to any wrong, because that can be ignored, and Jesus was a man who was a messenger of that grandfatherly God who wants us all to get along and tells us “imagine all the people living life in peace.”
On the contrary, we proclaim that through the Law comes knowledge of sin, and the Law, the requirement of God and His righteousness, shows that sin is not merely something that can be ignored – sin is an injury to the relationship between God and man and between man and his fellow man. There is no ignoring that if God is to remain righteous, and that means total separation from God’s infinite righteous nature.
Through knowledge of the Law then comes despair, the death of our selves because when faced with the requirement of God we realize we cannot possibly fulfill it. We are nothing in His sight if we are sinners. That is the powerful realization that this world so often wants us to forget, for the greatest triumph of the devil, the embodiment of all evil, is to convince us that evil doesn’t exist.
For Christians, with the realization of sin comes also the realization of God’s love. In other words, only those who fully know their sin can truly understand and accept the gracious gift of Christ that God gave for all mankind. The very notion that God should dwell among us as a man is grave and powerful with the idea that we are sinful. God still loves us enough to condescend to us, but not merely to make everything OK, to declare all that we do to be just fine. He does not declare a sinner a saint, but truly makes him so.
In God’s “No” is God’s “Yes.” In God’s rejection of sin by laying it all on Christ to be atoned for, God recreates and accepts humanity now cleansed of sin through the perseverance of Christ on the cross. Only in this context can the grace of God make sense because in that sinless state is man’s real value, man’s real goodness. It was only the knowledge of sin and cross, and then grace, that sets the saints apart from the rest. They did not live an extraordinarily good life just because; they did so because they rejoiced in the grace of God and because they were now new people who could participate in divine life in faith in Christ. This grace is given free of our own works, though we are called to act accordingly because it changes us. We are called to be what we have been re-created to be by God.
Luther explains this whole idea as being God’s left and right hands. With His left hand, he puts down man, that is, man’s false notion of himself, such that man sees his nothingness as it is. With His right hand He lifts man up in Christ. It is in this sense that we should understand Christ “seated at the right hand of the Father.” Realization of sin, confession of sin, and a dose of despair of our own means of solving our problem is healthy for our faith because we are confronted with reality, our sin, and we may then properly be crucified with Christ so that we might live in Him (to paraphrase St. Paul in his Letter to the Galatians).
A lack of acknowledgement of sin waters down our message. It removes the necessity of Christ. It does not allow us to be changed in Christ.
But there can be no Christ without the cross.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this “cheap grace.” In one of the most famous passages of his classic Discipleship, indeed one of the most famous passages of theology from the last century, he says:
Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ…[Costly grace] is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. It is costly, because it condemns sin; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner…Grace is costly, because it forces people under the yoke of Jesus Christ; it is grace, when Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy, and my burden light.’
Have you been to confession lately? Have you prayed in repentance, in contrition to a God whom you have no right to approach? Have you examined your conscience before God rather than before yourself?
If you have not, then I encourage you to do so. Only then can the unapproachable God approach you, change you, put the old Adam to death so that you might then live in Christ. In confession, in condemnation of sin, God still pierces through and rescues us, loves us, if only we had eyes to see and ears to hear.