In 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…