This is how I want to view the church of Jesus: wicked and compromised, but loved, and purified, and destined for greatness. I think this should be reflected in everything we do for and inside the church: our stand for truth and justice, as well as our newsletters. For those who spend a lot of time looking at the church’s failures, look at them the way Jesus would look at your own. For those who spend time looking at the church’s glory, don’t forget the sin he died to save it from, that still so easily entangles.
The past few years of my spiritual life have brought two distinct, intersecting truths to the surface of my consciousness. First, the answer to shame, insecurity, and fear in my own individual heart is the gospel, because the gospel not only confirms my real guilt but assures me that this guilt has been dealt with in love, forever. Second, the answer to my suspicion, cynicism, and even hatred toward those I perceive as my enemies is also the gospel, because the gospel tells me that those people are as loved as I am, and withholding from others the grace that was given to me is a sign that I myself have not experienced deep enough forgiveness.
When I translate the gospel into thinking about truth, culture, and the church, what I get is a profound sense that being a Christian is a disadvantage in the rat race to “win” social or political power. The gospel is a disadvantage because it tells me that I’m a sinner, and I cannot genuinely believe that I am a sinner while at the same time marketing myself or my ideas as the cure-all for the world’s ills. It’s a disadvantage also because the experience of the gospel makes certain worldly strategies unthinkable. In secular politics, I am supposed to crush my opponent with every tool available to me, even if it means stretching the truth or doing to him what I would not want done to me. The Bible says that my willingness to do that is evidence against my genuinely knowing Jesus. Disadvantage.
The thing about the gospel is that it moves so quickly from how we are treated by God to how we treat others. It’s horribly inconvenient. But it gets worse: the Bible tells us that if we refuse to treat others the way we believe God has treated us in Christ, it will turn out in the end that we actually were not treated by God the way we thought we were. The grace we will have thought we received will turn out to be a mirage. The most famous prayer in the history of the world features one of the strongest threats in Scripture: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:14-15)
Why does Jesus say this? Why is there a seeming condition on his offer of forgiveness for our sins? Why is the condition forgiving others? I think one answer must be that forgiving people who sin against us is one of the primary ways we remember who we really are. To forgive the person who hurts us is to tell ourselves again, “I am the one who trespassed against God. God forgave me, and I am not a better sinner than this person who has trespassed against me.” Remember that Jesus said he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Mark 2:17). The ones who are saved are the ones who, by mercy, hear that call. To withhold forgiveness is to stop our ears.
This tension is exemplified by a tense exchange between two men whom I admire. David French is a superb writer and an unusually compelling journalist. In the recent past, particularly since the election of Donald Trump, David’s writing has increasingly focused on the moral failures of a plurality of conservative American evangelicals. The failures of the predominantly white, evangelical church clearly occupy much of David’s attention and concern, and this comes through in his forceful and frequently blunt criticisms of it.
Kevin DeYoung is a Presbyterian pastor. He is also a wonderfully gifted writer and an excellent theologian. This week, Kevin expressed dismay at David’s criticisms of wide swaths of white evangelicalism.