It’s often recognized that even the devils believe in God. And the devils, too, know that Jesus is Lord. The difference between the Prince of Darkness and those with faith in the Prince of Peace, Luther said, is that the latter unlike the former know that Jesus is a Christ for them.
In his fable The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil catechize his minion, Wormwood, by teaching him that the best way to undermine Christianity in the world is not through direct and obvious attacks, like injustice, drug addiction, war, health insurance companies, Donald Trump, or Verizon wireless.
No, the best way to undermine Christianity, the Devil says, is by simply confusing the Church’s core message about who Christ is and what Christ has done, once for all; so that, the Devil’s work is done without Christians ever even noticing it— until the Church is left with a Christ-less Christianity and an unconditional promise called Gospel that is all conditions and obligations.
We tie strings onto the Gospel all the time:
God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, but first you must believe.
The balance sheet of everything you’ve wrought wrong in your life has been reckoned right— not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace— but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church.
Just talk to anyone who’s been asked for a pre-nup, the word ‘but’ changes a promise into a threat.
God forgives all your sins but first you must have faith. That’s not a promise. That’s a threat: If you don’t have faith, God will not forgive your sins. No wonder people don’t like coming to church. We offer them an unconditional promise with one hand, and then we take it away with the other hand.
If you repent…then God will love you.
If you believe…then God will have mercy on you.
If you do good, if you become good…then God will save you.
Getting us to believe that God’s grace is conditional that is, as Karl Barth notes, the Devil’s kind of work. Just read the assigned Gospel passage that always kicks off the season of Lent where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness.
“If you’ll fall down and worship me,” Satan says in Matthew’s Gospel, “then I’ll give you the kingdom.” Boom. We think we’re speaking Christian but, really, we sound like the Devil in the Desert.
It’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ that declares unconditionally that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’ It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditions. It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘God so loved the world that he gave— tonight and on a Friday afternoon—- his only begotten Son…’ There’s no ifs. There’s no buts. There’s no strings attached. No—because the Gospel is that the Lamb was slain so that goats like us might be counted as sheep among God’s faithful flock. The gift of God given to you in Jesus Christ is not conditional upon your goodness— upon the goodness of your faith or your belief or your character or your contributions to the Kingdom. By its definition, a gift is determined by the character of the giver not the receiver. Otherwise it’s a transaction; it’s not a gift.
The gift God gives in Christ is not conditional upon your righteousness. Nor is the gift of God conditional upon your response to it. By its definition, a gift elicits a response but it does not require one. In other words, what’s inside this gift God gives in Jesus Christ, the complete forgiveness of all your sins— as far as the curse is found— the gift of Christ’s own permanent perfect record reckoned to you as your own— like any other gift, this gift is true.
Whether you ever open it or not.
For goodness sake, most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better. Most people think that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life and that the Church is here to help you become good. Thus, it’s only natural that for many people Christianity would become but one option among many.
You don’t need the Church to become a better you. Joel Osteen can make you a better you. Soul Cycle can make you a better you. Your New Year’s resolutions can make you…no, they won’t.
You don’t need the Church to live your best life now, but you do need the Church— you need it’s promise of the Gospel— to be saved. Your therapist can repair your life, but your therapist cannot redeem you. Only faith, the faith proclaimed by the Church, can do that.
The Church is not about learning how to become good (though you might become good in the process). We’re not here because we need to learn how to be good; we’re here, as Paul’s Letter to the Galatians puts it, to hear that we’ve been rescued from our inability to be good:
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, under the commandments, in order to redeem those who were under the commandments…”
The Apostle Paul was encountered by Mary’s crucified Son risen from the dead, and according to the message given to the Apostle Paul by the Risen Christ, what you and I need isn’t a life coach.
We don’t need a teacher or an example, an idea or an inspiration.
We need a savior.
Even if it’s what you came to church looking for, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of St. Paul, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together. Not one of us— there is no distinction, scripture says. None of us can get our act together— not one.
That’s why Lent takes us to what is a one-sided, God-sided offensive invasion of our present evil age. The word of the cross is that our rescue is not found within us. That’s why the Bible’s language is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! The language the Bible uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been rescued! Christ does not show us the way to a holy God.
Christ is the way.
And he is yours by grace.