You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect,’ is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes. ~C.S. Lewis
Stevie and I sat cozied up together in church. He put his arm around me and leaned in close, just like I like it. It was a beautiful Advent service—where together, we received the Absolution, Communion, and heard a perfect law/Gospel sermon. We hopped into the car with a spring in our step, two forgiven sinners, and within 30 minutes, we were in a fight. Harsh words, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings aplenty. Y’all. This is two people who agree on EVERY point of theology, who share a bed, a home, children, a mortgage, and two smelly dogs. We are two people who love each other in every sense of the word. And we spent two hours airing our grievances, asking for forgiveness, and wondering how on earth we got to here and how to live together with more love—to better serve each other and bear each other’s burdens, without always pushing our own self-serving agendas.
This is what it’s like to live together as sinners. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It seems nearly impossible to do without both people having the right understanding of their utter depravity before God. Just when I’m about to accuse Stevie of some justifiable offense against me, my own sin pierces my conscience. We’re both wrong. We’re both stubborn. We’re both guilty before God. Theology matters because it teaches us who we are and gives us hope of redemption. It keeps us from so blatantly seeing the sin of others, while letting ourselves go scott free.
It’s become popular and very post-modern to say that theology doesn’t matter anymore— that we’ve managed to progress beyond the need for proper theological understanding and training. We want to be inclusive and tolerant and loving—so we dismiss the stodgy, theological types as narrow-minded and conservative. We’re past all that, we think. Many modern (or post-modern) churches have dismissed with creeds altogether, as passe and divisive. We all just love Jesus, we say. That seems to be the new unspoken creed. But, there’s a sly piece of trickery that sneaks in when you toss out 2,000 years of church practice and teaching. In dismissing with all that theology and all those dogmatic statements about our faith, we’ve inadvertently made a new creed and created our own system of theology. Perhaps a new golden calf, if you will.
Only this time, the creed wasn’t written by church fathers, after hours and months of study, prayer, and debate. It was wheeled out, shiny and new, without so much as a discussion, to make us look all generous and accepting. This new creed says absolutely nothing about Jesus and what He has done for us. This by-default creed is all about us—that we supposedly love Jesus and love our neighbor. Except that we don’t. We don’t love Him with our whole heart and we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves. At least not according to His own impossible definition of love. His mandate for us to love was always meant to be fulfilled by Him, not us. We live on the borrowed righteousness and love of the One whose love is always pure and just and true. And, hence the problem with replacing creeds about Jesus with creeds about us. When we make Christianity about deeds, not creeds, we become idolators, because Christianity is not a religion of doing, it’s a simple trusting in Christ for everything. He does every. last. thing. And, we need a creed, a truth claim from Scripture, to tell us that.
Our disdain for and misuse of theology has left us in a peculiar predicament in our modern culture. If we still hold fast to the truth claims of Scripture, we often use those dogmas to accuse our neighbor of his particular sin, instead of letting the law do its work on our own hearts. The sin of others, of them, is so easy to see. Or it would be, except for that huge log in my own eye. I can hardly get riled up about the sin of homosexuality because my own heterosexual sin is choking the life out of me. I lust, I covet, I fail to love the way I should. Sexual sin abounds in all of us, all the time and Jesus was not shy about condemning it. He calls for repentance, from all of us—homosexual and heterosexual alike. We need the grace of Jesus to rescue us from ourselves and our own depraved desires.
Then, there are those who want to do away with dogmas altogether. We’re told emphatically, dogmatically even, that we can no longer make judgements about anything, because that’s harsh and divisive. So, our new dogma is that it’s wrong to have dogmas. We get a pass with our righteous anger, if that anger is directed at those who make judgements. It’s the perfect case of reverse discrimination. In an effort to avoid all the dogmatism of theological systems, we’ve set up our own (dogmatic) system. But, beware. Just because this new theology doesn’t have a set of textbooks to go with it doesn’t mean it’s any less of a system. When there’s a void of good, sound doctrine, we will always fill the void with something.
So, the new theology goes something like this— love Jesus, love your neighbor, live on mission, embrace the lifestyles of the LGBT community, support women’s ordination, etc. And in this new system, nearly every view and lifestyle is acceptable UNLESS you critique the system. Then, you’ll have hell to pay. You’ll be called a bigot, an intolerant, stodgy old curmudgeon. In all actuality, it’s a pretty harsh system too, with some very sketchy hermeneutics. This theological system, while seeming so tolerant and loving has no real Gospel at all. Because without the proper teaching on sin, we don’t even know we need Jesus. And this new creed is just watered down law—all things we are supposed to do. It’s a system based on deeds, many of which go directly against the best and brightest minds in the history of the Christian faith—including Augustine, Martin Luther, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, every pope, St. Paul, and ultimately God Himself.
But, Jesus has the answer for this sin, too. He calls for repentance. He calls for us to yield to His ways, even if they don’t make sense, even if they aren’t logical, even if they seem outdated and discriminatory. When our reason and experience go against His words, we bend low and listen and learn. He is God, and we are not. His kingdom is radical and hidden and mysterious and we shouldn’t expect our world to get it, nor should we expect it to conform to our modern sensibilities. In love, He levels the playing field. Both camps are wrong—whether we use our theology as a weapon to condemn others, or whether we reinvent it every few years based on our own personal experiences and preferences. He condemns us ALL as sinners and begs us to repent—not just from our plethora of sexual sins, but from every category of our outright rebellion toward Him and His ways. Why? Because only when we can admit the depth of our depravity can we know the heights of His love. Only when we see the wretched state we’re all in, can we know how desperately we need to be rescued.
And here’s an important side note: Even if we stop making judgements about our own specific sins or the sins of others, our consciences won’t stop accusing us. We can rationalize until we’re blue in the face. But, there is no peace for any of us, when we are living outside the beautiful limitations that God places in our lives. The limitations are as important to the artist’s work as anything else and when God was creating us, He made us in a very specific way, for a very specific purpose. When we learn to yield to that design and purpose, we find peace. When we live rebellious and unrepentant, we wrestle with God and seek for ways to justify ourselves.
None of us are free to do as we please. We must yield, all of us, to Christ’s will and His ways. Christ doesn’t elevate one sin over another, nor are we free to do so. He sees us all as sinners in need of a Savior. And the paradox of Jesus is this—He speaks harsher than we do about sin and sweeter than we do about grace. He’s willing to be dogmatic about judgement and mercy. He’s willing to risk everything—including His reputation, to rescue us. His love is tenacious and exacting and He does not intend to leave us as He found us—not me, not you, not Phil Robertson, not any of us.
The only solution to our perilous dilemma is the Advent, the blessed coming, of our Lord. He is the author a revolutionary theological system that not only condemns sinners to die, but in one great act of mercy, dies in their stead, to ransom their souls back to the Father. The most important words in the Christmas story are these—unto you. He comes, not to random sinful people, but unto you. Not just to bear the sin of them, but to bear your specific sin. Whatever it is that terrifies your conscience has been answered in Jesus. He paid a steep price to give you the gift of forgiveness. This is not just a baby born in a manger. This is a baby, born in a manger, with His eyes set on Calvary, to die, for you.
The incarnation of Christ is the ultimate, reckless love of God on display for all of us. We need Him so desperately to come and be born in us—to restore what sin has wrecked, to redeem what we have squandered, to forgive us for the mess we’ve made of our lives and of the world.
Love has come.
Thanks be to God for His unspeakable Gift.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; o come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!