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Why be good? Part one

hellIn March I had a fascinating discussion with three Muslims at Plymouth University.  Having just given a talk, my microphone was still on and I have the whole 40 minutes recorded.  Twice in the course of our conversation a Muslim man admitted to me that, if there was no fear of punishment, he would 'get drunk and commit fornication all day.'

Rather than using this as proof of the perversity of the human heart, they used it as proof of the perversity of the cross.  As far as they could see, this was the only logical response to a belief in Christ's atonement. If you knew you were forgiven once and for all, you would enjoy an over-realised Islamic eschatology right?  You'd embrace 'paradise now' - rivers of wine, never-ending sex. That's the life, isn't it?  It's just that Allah has ordained this life as a test. If you can forego such pleasures now, you'll be proved worthy of them later.

To me this sounds like those emotional intelligence tests where a child is told to resist eating a marshmallow for 10 minutes. If they pass the test, they get two for proving their patience.  Is this how God operates?  What would this mean about the character of God?  What would it mean about the character of 'this life'?  What would it mean about the character of goodness?

I've been thinking about this a lot because I've heard many Christians essentially ask the same question as the Muslims: Why be good?  I mean really.  If Jesus has really atoned for all my sins - past, present and future - why not get drunk and commit fornication all day?

At this point various answers are given that sound very close to:

"You're forgiven, but not that forgiven."

"You're provisionally forgiven, but you can lose those privileges."

"If you commit sins graded "delta" and above you prove that you were probably never forgiven in the first place."

"You're only forgiven if you're really repentant (and by that we mean 'you've been a decent chap(pette) all your life', none of those 'death-bed conversion' schemes)."

In other words, we don't really believe the gospel.  We turn the promise of forgiveness into a status to be earned, and why?  Well, because our fear is basically the same fear as the Muslims I spoke to.  We imagine that declaring the free forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ alone will lead to an exodus from the church and into the strip-club. Millions of Christians will rush into sin brandishing their 'get out of hell free' cards in the face of all naysayers - whether from earth or heaven.

Except that we won't. Because there's no such thing as a 'get out of hell free' card.  There's only Jesus.  He is our forgiveness, our free forgiveness.  But Jesus is the One in whom these realities exist:

The Father has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.  (Colossians 1:13-14)

We are not given diplomatic immunity and then set loose into enemy territory.  We are rescued from enemy territory and delivered into a kingdom iridescent with the Father's love.  We are now in Jesus, and He is the inescapable environment of our lives. Forgiveness is not a 'wiped slate', or even a 'Teflon slate'.  Forgiveness is a realm into which we've been brought in Jesus - a realm of sonship; of freedom; of fellowship with the Beloved.

Why not get drunk?  Ephesians 5:18 says the Spirit of this sonship is better. Why not 'commit fornication'? Paul writes to Corinthians visiting brothels and what does he say? Does he say, "Stop it, Jesus remains outside the brothel, arms-folded waiting for a very good display of contrition before He'll even consider forgiving this"?  No, he says to the Corinthians "Stop it, you're taking Jesus into the brothel with you!" (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)  And you say, "How horrible!"  Well exactly.  So don't do it.  But don't give up fornicating because Jesus isn't with you all the way.  Stop it because He is.

Paul doesn't say to sinners caught in the act: "Now you have less than forgiveness", he says "You have more."  We have so much more - we have Christ Himself.

Why be good?  Not to avoid punishment. If you're "good" in order to avoid punishment or to gain some other reward, then that aint "good"!  That's self-interest.  Be good because Jesus is yours and you are His.  He has redeemed you, brought you out of the slavery of sin and opened your eyes to the real God and the real world.  More on this tomorrow...

12 thoughts on “Why be good? Part one

  1. Cal

    Excellent! I've seen the same bafflement with the possibility of libertinism in light of incomparable forgiveness. For Paul, it's not even a question: how can you want darkness when in the light? Better yet, why would you dishonor your prince when you bear his colors?

    It happens and that same forgiveness still runs like a river. What a day when we have reached the end of our road towards freedom and all things are new.

    The difference here between Islam and Christ is that Islam envisions paradise as a servants quarters. They seek to drink as a reward for surviving Allah, we seek to drink with our Master in Paradise. What a difference.

  2. theoldadam

    So, if we preach goodness...will we do it? Without self-motive?

    This is tricky.

    Or do we preach goodness, and then ask the question, "How are you doing?" And hold up the mirror to the sinner...to expose them. And then announce the gospel. The forgiveness of sins. And then let the Spirit go to work.

    I dunno. Just asking.

  3. Howard

    The reality, of course, is that 'enemy territory' is not 'immune' from the reign and life of Jesus Christ, so the real problem for any one of us, is not the Cross (which, as Paul shows, for example, in Romans 5, is the only answer to our sin), but what Jesus teaches about keeping the law in the sermon on the mount, what Paul teaches about sin in Romans 2 & 3, and what James teaches about carnality (James 2). The problem is our nature, which seeks continuously to 'externalize' (minimize) the satisfaction of the requirement for righteousness as something we can achieve by 'doing good' and thereby deny the inherent propensity or bent of our natures to evil. Sin is nurtured and grows because we are sinful - that is the root problem, so thinking we are being good because we put on a fine show of morality or piety before others is a fatal trap. Here's where the Law has it's true purpose - to show just how corrupt and evil we really are. Then the work of Jesus Christ at the Cross truly becomes the power of God to save us totally, because only when we see the depth of our fall can we truly see the need for God's remedy.

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