Imperfect Christianity

I have read some things recently in the blog world that have disturbed me greatly.  Things about Christians.  It’s nothing new.  I’m aware these thoughts and feelings exist.  We are self-righteous.  We are close-minded.  We are hateful and intolerant.  We are hypocrites.

What upsets me is not that people think these things of us.  What upsets me is that we have given them reason to think these things.

The very most basic, fundamental tenant of Christianity is that we are we are desperately wicked and in need of a Savior.  As Jeremiah 17:9 states, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.”  (Now, if quoting Scripture makes you twitch — or click away — and you know who you are — please bear with me for a minute.  Cause if you fancy yourself all open-minded and tolerant, then you should at least hear me out.  I’m just sayin’.)

In other words, no one is perfect. Every last one of us is born sinful and without hope unless or until we put our trust in Christ Jesus. Isaiah 53:6 sums it up well, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him [Christ] the iniquity [sins] of us all.”

As benefactors of the greatest gift ever bestowed upon mankind, Christians SHOULD be the most gracious, humble, and loving people to walk the earth.  But of course we’re not any more gracious, humble and loving than anyone else because down deep inside, we are no more perfect than anyone else. And yet, there SHOULD be a distinction between believers and unbelievers because we DO have the grace of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.  But all too often, WE get in the way of our message of hope and salvation when we get caught up in petty disputes and squabbles, or our sinful prejudices surface.

And there is also the misinterpretation of what is gracious, humble, and loving.  None of those words mean that we shouldn’t stand up for what we believe to be true and right.  The gospel will always be offensive to some because while it is a message of love and hope, it is also exclusive.  The most well-known verse in all of Scripture is probably John 3:16, but the verses following flesh it out even more.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

So yes, Christianity by nature IS exclusive.  We can’t apologize for that.  HOWEVER.  We should make sure that it is ONLY the gospel and NOT our own sinful prejudices and behaviors that people find offensive.  And that is what I believe we have done to make our message so distasteful.  Because we ARE sinful and imperfect, we often get caught up in silly squabbles.  We get angry.  We say things that are unkind.  We feel envious towards others.  We put more faith in ourselves or our jobs or our kids or our money than we do in God.  We allow secondary issues to divide us when we should be united in Christ.

I am here to tell you that I have done every single one of those things, and it grieves me.  So I repent.  I take my sins of pride and self-reliance to my Lord and lay it at His feet and accept his forgiveness and ask for his grace to do better tomorrow.  And of course I sin again.  It’s a process.  I will never be perfect, although as I grow in grace and knowledge of my Savior I should be growing more like Him.  But as long as I am in my earthly body there will always be sin in my life.  And the same is true for every one of us.

The only difference between a follower of Christ and anyone else is that the Christian lays his or her sin at the feet of Jesus daily and claims His cloak of righteousness as a free gift that was purchased by his death on the cross.  And the invitation to do just that is open to everyone.

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60 thoughts on “Imperfect Christianity

  1. This is beautifully and profoundly worded and I carry this with me today as a comfort that I am not the only ” Imperfect Christian ” out there , that falls on their knees and cries and just spills out all her sin before the Lord , only to find myself doing it again tomorrow because I was angry when I shouldn’t be , not as patience as I wanted to be , didn’t reach a goal I needed to , haven’t grown as much as I’ve wanted to , failed to withstand a temptation I should have and so much more. In our lives sin is a daily struggle and all sins are equal before God. I am thankful I have Jesus Christ , who died for my sins to guide me , correct me and be the gateway to my forgiveness before God. Do I want to sin , absolutely not…will I sin ? Sometimes I will . The only comfort I have is knowing that God is always waiting for me to fall on my knees and repent ,to give it all to Him through His Son , Jesus Christ and to pray for a more loving , less sinful , hopeful day tomorrow .

  2. Hi Jo-Lynn,

    Thanks for this thoughtful and reflective post. I agree with your intention, and it’s very well put.

    I’m not sure if I agree with your opening statement, though: “The very most basic, fundamental tenant of Christianity is that we are we are desperately wicked and in need of a Savior.”

    That’s true of a particular kind of Christianity. It has its roots in St. Augustine; it’s connected with the idea of original sin (which is not, to my knowledge, found in early Christianity); and it reaches its height only in the Reformation (where Calvin writes of our “utter depravity”).

    The idea that we’re “desperately wicked” and therefore are powerless to do anything about it except through surrendering to Jesus doesn’t have much resonance in early Christianity. The scriptural quotations you cite, for example, both come from the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and are only interpreted in the way you describe by some Christians (not by all Christians, and not, obviously, by Jews). The New Testament doesn’t offer a great deal of support for this view of us as “desperately wicked.” In fact, it has many more instances of Jesus praising people for being righteous and faithful (even people who were not Jews, and who didn’t show any signs of accepting Jesus as their savior).

    Early Christians seemed to have a much more positive view of human nature and saw a possibility for inner transformation and growth. That lived on in Eastern Orthodox Christianity (which didn’t feel the impact of Augustine’s theology), where spiritual practice and development leads to the “divinization” of the individual, who should follow the example of Jesus Christ in making himself like God (something eventually seen as heretical by western Christianity).

    The reason I stress this is because if we take a view of humans as inherently evil, utterly depraved, or hopeless without the saving grace of Jesus (which then, somehow, almost magically, wipes away all our sin… as if it were so easy), then we can easily succumb to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” (And Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, despite the fact that it was Luther who disparaged the epistle of James as a “gospel of straw” because it praised works, and not just faith alone). We relinquish all responsibility to God and take no responsibility for our own actions and the need to transform ourselves into a divine likeness (and all the hard work that that takes!). Another very unfortunate consequence of this line of thinking is that, if we are desperately wicked except for the saving grace of Jesus, then that means that all non-Christians are, by definition, desperately wicked. And well, that’s just not true. There are plenty of non-Christians who are far, far less wicked than many Christians…

    Yes, we are limited, we are constrained, we are conditioned by sin. But sadly Christianity has become a teaching whereby we are told we are “desperately wicked” and can only be saved by an outside power, whereas I think a more accurate and realistic approach is to say that, in addition to the saving grace of God, we need to put in hard work if we are to be spiritual beings, the “city on the hill,” the “salt of the earth,” and more.

    1. I will have to disagree. We are all, christians and non-christians, as wicked as the next and in need of a Savior. Any goodness that is present in anyone is a result of common grace, and isn’t truly goodness after all because the motivation isn’t for the glory of God, but for our own self-righteousness.

      There are plenty of scripture passages in the old and new testaments that defend the doctrine of original sin….

      GEN 6:5 And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

      JER 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

      ECC 7:20 For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.

      ROM 3:10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. 13 Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: 14 Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: 15 Their feet are swift to shed blood: 16 Destruction and misery are in their ways: 17 And the way of peace have they not known: 18 There is no fear of God before their eyes.

      ROM 5:6 For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.

      ROM 8:7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.

      ROM 7:18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.

      JAM 1:14 But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. 15 Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.

      1JO 1:8 If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

      ROM 7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. 17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.

      ROM 6:23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

      I’m not saying it’s an easy pill to swallow. We all like to think people are inherently good, and I will not deny that I know many non-Christians are more loving and kind than many of the Christians that I know, but I do not believe they are in their heart of hearts any better or more righteous than anyone else.

      These doctrines don’t contradict that fact that we are responsible for our actions and don’t excuse us from “putting in the hard work” but ultimately, no matter how hard we work, we cannot be perfect. Which is why we need a perfect Savior.

      1. Hi Jo-Lynne,

        Thanks for reading my post and providing a thoughtful response.

        Perhaps we will just have to agree to disagree on this one, but here are a few thoughts that I had when reading your post.

        It seems to me that you are drawing a distinction between two levels of goodness and wickedness: “goodness” and “true goodness.” For example, you write:

        “We are all, christians and non-christians, as wicked as the next and in need of a Savior. Any goodness that is present in anyone is a result of common grace, and isn’t truly goodness after all because the motivation isn’t for the glory of God, but for our own self-righteousness.”

        I think you are also drawing this same distinction when you write:
        “I know many non-Christians are more loving and kind than many of the Christians that I know, but I do not believe they are in their heart of hearts any better or more righteous than anyone else.”

        It seems to me you must be referring to two levels, otherwise these statements would be self-contradictory. Am I correct? If some people (including non-Christians) are “more loving and kind” than some other people (including Christians), then we couldn’t all be “as wicked as the next.” My guess is that your usage of “righteous” also refers to that fundamental level, not superficial actions.

        I can understand this, and accept it on a certain level. For example, it’s possible that despite apparent acts of goodness, we are all characterized on an ontological level by sin–a limitation. This is indeed how Christian thought develops, in my opinion, all the way from the doctrine of “original sin” up to Calvin’s “utter depravity” and Paul Tillich’s idea that we are ontologically “finite” and “limited.” If you call that condition “wicked,” then your position makes perfect sense to me.

        The conundrum for me is therefore: if a person accepts Jesus Christ as their savior, this would seem to address that fundamental level “wickedness” and “righteousness.” But then, if that person’s actions (which are to you only superficial goodness) continue to be worse than another person, who is not a Christian, how would one explain that? And how would the two people be judged, in the end? My original criticism stemmed from the idea (which I believe is erroneous) that the Christian is somehow more “righteous” than the non-Christian just because of having accepted Jesus, and that this is somehow independent of their actions and how they subsequently live their life. That is, by definition, “cheap grace.”

        Thank you for citing all the scripture passages, but it seems like an exercise in proof-texting (my apologies if I am wrong about that). I don’t think proof-texting is very helpful. Those passages don’t prove that original sin is biblical; many of them are taken out of context, for one thing, and it’s not clear that they’re referring to an ontological state for all of humanity. Secondly, if it were so clear from these passages that original sin is biblical, then Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians would also accept the doctrine of original sin, which they don’t. (This is one reason why Eastern Orthodox theologians never had problems with infants who died prior to baptism; they have a concept of ancestral sin, but not original sin).

        I doubt we’d want to say that those who die prior to accepting Jesus into their hearts (such as children) are innately wicked because of original sin. If we can’t say that of children, I don’t see how we can say it of non-believers or people from other religious traditions, either. Especially when some (many) of those people lead loving, compassion-filled lives, sometimes putting believing Christians to shame, and when some of them have never even heard of the gospel of Jesus Christ (so they couldn’t be actively rejecting it).

        I think Jesus Christ was much more open and accepting than much of contemporary Christianity gives him credit for, and I think his life illustrates that he cared much more about what was in the heart than a formal profession of faith in him being God (something he himself, incidentally, never asked for, from what we can tell from the gospels). I think he cared more about how we treat each other than what formal doctrines we believe (he was a big proponent of the former, and a big critic of the latter).

        If I had to point to some scriptural passages to support this view, I’d choose Matthew 7:21-29 (which begins: “Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'”)

        and Matthew 25:31-46 (“Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'”)

        To me, these passages indicate that many who openly profess to be followers of Jesus, but who do not act lovingly towards others will not be welcomed; but those who treat others with love, kindness, humility and generosity, even though they do not know they are serving Jesus, will be welcomed. Because a loving father or mother who cares for all of his/her children equally will welcome and praise those children who treat the other children well. Jesus loves all of humanity and wants us to treat each other well. Those who do this, even if they have never heard of his name, are surely more righteous in his eyes than those who proclaim the name of Jesus loudly, but ignore the welfare of their brothers and sisters, or even actively oppress and harm them.

        1. Brendan, I appreciate your respectful comments, but I simply do not have time to engage in this discussion. I can see from your blog that you are Buddhist, and there is no way we will meet eye to eye on the topic of Christianity. I wish you well.

          1. Thanks, Jo-Lynne. I didn’t mean to start a huge theological debate, and I don’t mind that we won’t meet eye to eye for the time being.

            However, I am a Christian, so if you’re writing off the possibility of agreement because of a difference in religion, then that would be unfortunate. I went to seminary (Boston University) and have taught at a seminary (Emory). I teach comparative spiritual practices and have a strong interest in Buddhism. I used to believe (and struggle with) the idea of Christianity as an exclusive religion, but after studying the development of Christian thought, as well as other religions, I no longer find it tenable. My favorite theologian is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Nevertheless, my intention wasn’t to convince you of my point of view, but only to share a few thoughts, and, since I’ve done that, I think I’ll just leave it at that! Much appreciation for your time.

  3. Brendan, You write

    This would be true if not for the imputation of Christ. It is not individual merit but the imputed works of Christ that makes them acceptable in God’s eyes. The work of sanctification is what leads to external works but that is only possible their the effective calling of Christ. You are not judged by your personal works (thankfully) but by the cross. This idea is completely missing from your comment so I would refer you to a good summary of this idea and Christian faith here http://www.opc.org/wcf.html

    THis means that with any given christian, sin will manifest itself differently. Yes, there should be change and the change of heart should become apparent through outward works.

    You say

    The scritpures say all are sinful. So yes… I would say all are wicked because they are both born sin and actively sin http://www.opc.org/wcf.html#Chapter_06.

    You Say

    NOt sure about “open and accepting”? Tell that to the Pharisees, the rich young ruler, saducees, priests, etc. While he *was* accepting of the prostitutes and/or the adulterers, he did not accept their actions “go and sin no more”.

    I agree with that he was concerned about matters of the heart. However, in your closing statements you seem to think he was only interested in actiions and not believe or profession of Jesus as Lord? Go tell that to Peter? If you statements are true, then Peters denial of Christ was no big deal and he had nothing to repent of…. Same for Judas for that matter.

    But the Gospels clearly points to union with christ which lead to salvation. You divorce these issues and make a mockery of the gospel. While it is true that not all who proclaim “lord Lord” with their lips will be saved, it does not mean that one can be saved apart from knowing “lord…Lord”. John makes this brutally clear in his comparative illustration from Israel’s experience in Numbers. If you do not, know Christ, you will be lost:

    Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[g] 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

  4. The reason that Christians give people the idea that they are all of the things that you mentioned is that there are those of us who don’t appreciate being told with such dogmatic certainty that we were born flawed somehow, or that we are, as you put it, ” desperately wicked and in need of a Savior”. Well, I am not desperately wicked, I’m not mean, or evil, or sinful. I was born human and everything that I need to know about being human is already inside of me. I don’t need a scapegoat to forgive me of any failings, I’ll gladly own up to them myself. And if there is any forgiveness that may be needed, I’ll supply that as well. Believe what you wish, but human sacrifice has never worked, and I don’t need a god to tell me what the next right thing to do is. Peace.

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