My good friend Garret responded to a post below. In that post, one of the things I was noticing was that several non-Christian groups have done a better job of causing people to behave morally than several Christian groups.
More specifically, I was thinking about straight-edged punk rockers among stereo typical white suburbanites and groups like The Black Panthers among African Americans.
One of Garret’s intresting contributions to the topic was the idea of legalism. He implied that these groups tend to be legalistic. He was intellecutally honest enough to observe that Christianity is often also legalistic.
As I pondered this point, I spent a while on a silly question.
That question is “Which is better: to be somebody who happens to behave in a way that Christ approves of but who does not do it for Jesus, or is it better to be somebody who knows what they are supposed to do, somebody who knows what Jesus did, but often messes it all up?”
Here’s a practical example of what I’m talking about: we could imagine an atheist who was a straight-edged punk rocker. He never has any sexual contact. He doesn’t indulge in inpure thoughts. He’s seen the destruction that sexual contact outside of marriage can bring. This is why he’s made the comittments he’s made. Suppose, for the sake of argument, he does a good job at this.
Now consider a seminary student. He’s memorized half the bible. His interpretations are accurate. He knows what is expected. And he keeps messing things up. He has a problem with his sexuality. He continually engages in sexual sin.
The silly question I pondered was:
Is it better to to be the first person or the second person?
It occurs to me that both of them have a tremendous problem. I think scripture agrees. Paul says in a variety of places that Jesus didn’t free us from sin so that we can go on sinning. It’s clearly important that the seminary student not abuse his freedom in Christ. But James, on the other hand, seems to be saying that if the seminary student doesn’t act out his faith, if it doesn’t make a difference in terms of his behavior, then he doesn’t have a real, living faith.
And it seems like a real, living faith in Jesus makes the difference for our eternity.
To ask the question: Is it better to be the straight-edge or the seminary student is still for a number of reasons. One of them is that the term “better” is so vague. But more importantly, they both have a tremendous problem. We recognize the inherent absurdity in questions like “Would you rather burn to death or drown.” Or “Would you rather chop off your little pinky or lose your right ear?” This is a similiar thing. Niether of them is better. We ought to try to do better than both.
(I realize that there are atleast three cans of worms hovering around this question that I haven’t even opened yet. One is the reality that we all sin. There’s some level that we’re all like the seminary student. Another is the question of whether or not we can lose our salvation.)