From self-justification to mercy

From self-justification to mercy July 17, 2011

Like many other evangelicals in my generation, I’ve got a kind of rage inside of me that keeps me awake at night. It comes from looking around and feeling convicted that we Christians have become exactly what Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being. We have become the same as the Pharisees who made it necessary for Jesus to come to Earth in the first place. We have taken the Word that was given to us as a gift and turned it into a means of one-upping each other and winning political power for ourselves. We want it to be a hard Word that nobody else can accept so we can win the competition and have the white sandy beaches of heaven all to ourselves.

Matthew 23 pretty much captures the state of modern-day evangelicalism. We tie up heavy burdens for others to carry when we ourselves are unwilling to lift a finger. We travel land and sea to win a single convert and when he becomes one, we make him twice the son of hell that we are. I often feel like pouring ashes on my head and sitting in sackcloth when I think of how many people have been legitimately turned away by a Christianity that would turn me away too if God didn’t have such a tight grip on my heart.

When Jesus tells the Pharisees in Matthew 9:13 to “go and find out what it means” that God “desire[s] mercy and not sacrifice,” he’s talking to us with our Protestant work ethic, our demonization of welfare mamas and illegal aliens, the prudishness by which we define ourselves and justify looking down on others. The paradigmatic distinction Jesus makes, “mercy not sacrifice,” has become the cornerstone for my theology. Sacrifice describes a perspective in which I feel the need to prove my worth to God whether it’s through doing good deeds, going without worldly comforts, sacramental observances, or having the right doctrine. Mercy describes a perspective in which I view all my possessions and achievements as gifts I don’t deserve from an infinitely generous God who only wants me to become a means by which His mercy is spread and comes to reign over every human heart.

I’ve become convinced that the purpose of Christ’s atonement is to establish the reign of God’s mercy. That is how God brings His name glory, not through some shock and awe display of power or thin-skinned intolerance for our dishonor which was all the pagan gods could muster. Jesus illustrates this principle in the parable of the unmerciful servant. The purpose of forgiving our debt is to create a chain reaction of debt-forgiveness. The hero of Jesus’ parable on how to love your neighbor is the religious syncretist Samaritan who isn’t so stuck on his own rightness that his heart can’t be “moved by pity.” A Samaritan was anything but orthodox in his doctrine but the hero of Jesus’ parable was His exemplar for the orthopraxis of mercy.

The enemy of mercy is self-justification. It is seeing life as a struggle to prove that I’m right and have always been right. The problem is that this is our default state. Once we eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (which we’ve all done with the man whose name אדם means simply “humanity”), we have to grapple with the trauma of not always doing what makes sense to us as rational creatures. We cannot maintain the cognitive dissonance of facing our sins openly, so we rationalize our actions as a reflex of the mind. The more that we justify the unjustifiable, the more we are corrupted in our appetites, will, and reason, and become the species of homo curvatus en se that Augustine famously described.

We have to be rescued from the original sin of self-justification. That is the need that atonement addresses. It is at least a misleading oversimplification and at most a horrible blasphemy to say that Jesus’ death on the cross rescues us from His Father’s wrath as though their wills and actions are not in perfect coordination and unity. Here’s my best crack at capturing the difficult mystery of atonement. The Father whose love is wrath to those who want to be their own gods sent his Son to melt down the prison walls of our self-justification so that we could freely and gratefully know His love. As the concluding line of his discourse on election in Romans, Paul writes that “God has bound all in disobedience so that He might have mercy on all” (Rom 11:32). (Notice the word all. It’s πάντα in both places in the original Greek, not all Jews, not all who believe, not all who were predestined, just all, and the Calvinists can’t do anything about it, though this doesn’t mean that all accept the offer of mercy.)

I really believe the goal is the reign of mercy, which can only be accomplished if we all know that we’re all wrong and God alone is right. If we’ve ever been right, it’s no credit to us but actually a manifestation of God’s mercy that He blessed us with the knowledge and willpower to be part of His rightness. It is not that we do no good; God does plenty of good through each of us but it can’t benefit us as long as we look at our achievements as sacrifices which merit compensation.

The only way that the good we do can do us any good is if we see it as a gift from God that He chose to include us in His goodness. That’s what a life of mercy means: to be grateful for the opportunity to love others in the hope that they will discover the same reason to love gratefully and then find others with whom they themselves can share mercy so that all might become branches on the vine of Jesus Christ. That’s what I think it’s all supposed to be about anyway. Let God’s mercy reign. מלך חסד יהוה

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