Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Flipping the Switch

I was sixteen, I think, watching a young man in his twenties give his testimony.

It was one of those beauties so full of clich├ęs you might have been forgiven for mistaking it for the creative output of a team of Hollywood screenwriters or perhaps the lyrics to a Bryan Adams song. He had even been a sailor, if you can imagine. I mean, who goes to sea to act out these days? He’d tried the “broken cisterns”, as the old hymn goes, and “Ah, the waters failed.”

Except it seems they tasted pretty good to him at the time.

My Teenage Takeaway

Somehow (I forget exactly how), the prodigal found his way back to the Lord and subsequently to the pulpit in front of a group of antsy teens primarily occupied with those of the opposite sex around them.

The moral of his story: “Don’t do what I did!”

But my teenage takeaway? WHY EVER NOT?

He got to do all the stuff I was dying to do until it bored him, after which he was able to flip on faith like some kind of switch, show up out of the blue at his old church, date one of youth group hotties and become its leader.

What’s not to like about that?

A Life Full of Sin

Mine was a peculiar and toxic attitude, but terribly common. We all know somebody who thinks that way: a son, a brother, a nephew. Or maybe the friend of this perplexed fellow who wrote the advice columnist at Christianity Today:

“My friend is saved, but he doesn’t act like it. He lives a life full of sin. He even admits it, but says, ‘It’s OK, Christ forgives me!’ It seems like he’s using God’s grace as an excuse to do whatever he wants.”

A “life full of sin” is very different from “he slips up occasionally and deeply regrets it”. Let’s not confuse the two things. John says to believers, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” We all fail, and do so regularly. But in the same context, John also says, “If we say we have fellowship with [God] while we WALK in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.” It’s the difference between what is occasional and what is characteristic.

A life full of sin is a dangerous game.

“Christ Forgives Me”

“It’s okay, Christ forgives me.”

Well, yes and no. Without question Christ forgives the repentant sinner. But Paul’s message to Jew and Gentile alike was “that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance”.

Without the latter, there is no evidence real forgiveness has ever occurred, been internalized or appreciated. The woman who anointed the Lord’s feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee was known to be forgiven because “she loved much”. The proof was in the pudding. The evidence was right at hand: her life had changed demonstrably, and it proved the reality of her repentance and forgiveness.

In the absence of even a modestly transformed life, how does anyone confidently affirm, “It’s OK, Christ forgives me”? That one needs a rethink.

Poisonous and Bitter Fruit

I think of the attitude Moses warned Israel against during his message in Moab:

“Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ ”

“I shall be safe.” Perhaps, but perhaps not. There was no remedy for such a person. Moses says, “The Lord will not be willing to forgive him.”

Ah, but we are under Grace, not under Law, right? No worries then.

Again, perhaps.

I Shall Be Safe

“How would you like to die?” asked the reporter from Vanity Fair, tongue firmly in cheek. With what was probably equal flippancy, singer John Mellencamp is said to have replied, “I need a long and lingering death to make sure that I have time to have a deathbed conversion.”

Sure, but you have to believe you’re really at the end of the road, right? Nobody ever does.

As an older Christian, my observation is that repentance is not some switch that you can flip at will at any point in your life. The sort of person who says to himself the modern equivalent of, “I can walk in the stubbornness of my heart just a bit longer” seems to perpetually extend that “bit longer” until one day his friends find themselves standing over his or her casket and wondering if that long-anticipated moment of repentance ever came. God’s grace is greater than any measurement I might attempt to make of it, but as someone who once took it for granted rather flippantly, I look back on my own teenage attitude recognizing that I was in a much more dangerous position than I ever thought.

The line between “Pharaoh hardened his heart” and “Jehovah hardened the heart of Pharaoh” may be perfectly clear to us when we read the book of Exodus.

I doubt it was so obvious to Pharaoh.

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