Christians, we’ve given ourselves a pretty bad reputation of late. Where we used to be known for our kindness and generosity, now it’s largely our judgmentalism and condemnation that comes to people’s minds when they think of us. The increased melding of religion with political debate has only added to the problem. We’ve felt under attack by liberal, “worldly” agendas in some sense; hence the need to fight back has arisen, to defend our beliefs and become more vocal about them, on mainstream and social media.
It’s intriguing that in the midst of declining numbers and the so-called “erosion of religious freedoms”, we’ve chosen to double down on the judgment and condemnation instead of centring our message on the core tenets of Christianity: unconditional love, forgiveness and grace.
So why do we seem to struggle so much in declaring these key messages of our faith? Why the need to lead with the fire and brimstone of judgment when we’ve also shown ourselves to be far from perfect time and again?
What have we got wrong?
I was raised with an understanding of the gospel that went something like this: I was born a sinner, but by God’s grace I had come to a saving faith in Jesus to save me from my sinful state. Although I was saved from this state, I was bound by my existence in this life to continue in it until I died. But as long as I held on to my faith until the end, I would go to heaven when I died.
Other denominations have variations on this theme. But the general consensus is that we are (at least in part) wretched, worthless, sinful beings and unless we exalt Jesus Christ as Lord of our lives and try to live a sinless life, we will spend eternity in hellish torment for the misdeed of being born.
A life of struggle
All of this amounts to a lot of work. A continuous struggle against a “sinful nature”; fighting against ourselves to remain pure enough (if that were even possible) to continue to receive God’s favour. If we don’t catch the slips into sin quick enough, we might just spiral out of faith altogether and lose our salvation (if we ever even really had it at all). Continual repentance is the order of the day for any card-carrying Christian, and requires a level of remorse proportionate to the sinful deed in order to be truly transformational.
We’re supposed to say sorry for our sin and never do it again. But all Christians know that this doesn’t actually work. There is no real transformation with this method. We just continue in cycles of sin and repentance, sin and repentance over and over again, hoping that God will continue to forgive us to the nth degree, despite our flagrant flaunting of his mercy.
It’s no wonder then, that some Christians are so vocal about the need to “repent and believe”. It is the most intrinsic aspect of their faith, their worldview. Never mind that it doesn’t actually work. But the benefits in the next life are still worth all the struggle against sin in this one. As long as we keep showing God that we want to be transformed, when we pass into the next life we will be.
A better Gospel
But lets back up for a minute. The core of the Gospel is not "to repent and believe”. It is not about doing our best to live a sinless life. Nor is it even a demand to swear allegiance to the correct deity. The Gospel is the proclamation of God’s forgiveness, love, grace and acceptance of us in the face of our deepest rejection of That-which-is-the-Christ. The Cross is God’s message to us that we are already reconciled with God, forgiven - our relationship forever unsullied - despite our failure to recognise it, and our best efforts to reject it.
God required no change of heart on the part of humanity before displaying his forgiveness and reconciliation to the world. Christ forgave those who were killing him, while they were killing him. God forgave me while I was still a sinner, and God forgave you too, long before any thought of repentance on your part. The Gospel does not trust in our efforts, nor does it require our input at all. It is only and totally about what God did for us, in order for us to finally see what was always true.
Where have we placed our trust?
Here’s the thing. We have misunderstood the gospel for too long, ever since we took what God did for us and made it about what we needed to do for God. Because really, it is much easier for us to trust in our own efforts, no matter how futile we know they may be, than to truly trust God’s. We would rather trust our miserable and ineffective attempts at repentance than trust that God has already reconciled us. Ultimately, we can’t show grace and acceptance because we haven’t yet accepted it for ourselves as something entirely undeserved. We are unable to live out the gospel, because we have yet to believe it for ourselves.
But what if we did choose to believe that God’s forgiveness was as unconditional as God’s love? If Grace truly was undeserved, and not conditioned on our ability to repent? What if we didn’t have to measure up to some standard of “sorry-ness” in order to earn it? Could we learn to trust a good God’s grace instead of trusting more so in our own ability to repent? Could we learn to truly be loved, unconditionally, and let that love flow through every fibre of our being? What kind of transformation would that bring to our lives?
Which Gospel will we choose?
Church, for too long now we have lived under a gospel of judgment; of our ability to measure up to God’s standard for holiness and/or restitution for our failings. And we have determined to pass that judgment on to those outside the Church and those we have deemed not worthy of “God’s” fellowship. If we are honest, that’s because we know how impossible it is to truly repent, and how unworthy we really are of God’s fellowship ourselves. We can’t help but project our own self loathing onto others and demand that they feel as miserable as us. Can’t we see how anti-Christ that is?
It’s time we started trusting again in God’s reconciliation: God’s love, from which nothing can separate us – not death, nor devils, nor anything else in all creation, not even our sinful selves. It’s time to stop judging others – another core theme of the gospel – and get back to our roots: the unconditional love, forgiveness and reconciliation of God through Christ Jesus for all mankind. It’s time to let go of human driven, repentance-based reconciliation and start trusting God to unconditionally love us - and our enemies - into wholeness.
Russell has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft