Who needs a third party to forgive us, anyway?

March 21, 2013

Many years ago, when I was in college, Graham Parker released a decent middle-period record called Struck By Lightning. It included a rootsy love song called “And It Shook Me.” The song includes the following verse, which, as a young Christian, rubbed me the wrong way:

Some believe in a heaven up above
With a God that forgives all with his great love
Well I forgive you if you forgive me, hey!
Who needs the third party anyway?
And it shook me and I’m still shaking now.

Here’s the song from YouTube:

While I deduct a mark for Parker’s insertion of “hey” as a means of rhyming “anyway,” it’s not a bad lyric. And Parker raises an interesting question: If we forgive one another our wrongdoing, “who needs a third party” to forgive us?

Of course, for us Christians, the answer is obvious: While we have sinned against one another—for which, by all means, we should seek forgiveness from one another—we have, more importantly, sinned against God. Our sin has created a rift in our relationship with God, and unless God does something to heal that rift, we are in serious trouble. Thus the cross of Christ and atonement… Christianity 101.

But this “obvious” answer (to us Christians) seems increasingly less obvious to the post-Christian mindset.

I thought of Parker’s question as I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon on Luke 18:9-14, the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (which I’ll post online soon). It’s a beautiful story of a notorious sinner being reconciled with God—of justification by faith. Moreover, unlike the real-life story of Zacchaeus the tax collector in Luke 19:1-10, whose repentance includes giving half his possessions to the poor and reimbursing the people he’d defrauded, last Sunday’s parable involves only repentance and forgiveness in the vertical direction: God justifies this sinner, irrespective of the actions he takes in the horizontal direction.

As I said in the sermon, for all we know, the tax collector immediately left the Temple and made amends for his bad behavior. It seems likely that he would have to, if his repentance were sincere. My point in the sermon, however, was that his justification preceded good works.

From Parker’s perspective, however, this parable has no power whatsoever. The only thing that matters is forgiveness in the horizontal direction. Do his words suggest, therefore, that only those of us indoctrinated to believe in God feel a sense of sin and guilt?

The answer is no—at least according to Robert Tuttle, an evangelism professor  at Asbury Theological Seminary. Tuttle has made it his mission to identify and present a “transcultural gospel,” helping Christians understand some universal interests, needs, or concerns—independent of culture—to which the gospel of Jesus Christ speaks.

One of these universal needs is the following:

[P]eople the world over have a need (whether inherent or by the work of the Holy Spirit) to fulfill some form of law and have become frustrated with their inability to measure up. Whether Kant’s “categorical imperative,” or Calvin’s “common grace” (especially as interpreted by Barth), or Wesley’s “prevenient grace,” the result is the same, the universal oughtness and the subsequent need for power to measure up is transcultural. Thus, this principle is basic to my search for a transcultural gospel.[†]

Everyone is “frustrated  with their inability to measure up.” We Christians happen to call this inability “sin,” and God offers a solution for it through his Son Jesus. Whatever we call it, however, it’s real, and it affects all of us. Christianity (among other religions) doesn’t need to invent the concept, or try to make people feel guilty about it, in order for the gospel to resonate.

Robert G. Tuttle Jr., Can We Talk? (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 59.

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