To read Part 1 of this series, click here.
In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape, a demon who is experienced and successful in leading human “patients” to hell, apprentices his nephew Wormwood in the art of temptation. Wormwood’s patient has recently become a Christian. From Screwtape’s perspective, this fact alone does not spell disaster: the patient, he says, may yet become apostate and arrive safely in hell.
For one thing, Wormwood needs to attack him while he’s worshiping in church. Distract his patient’s mind with thoughts of how ridiculous his neighbors in the next pew seem—how, for instance, they dress shabbily; how they sing off-key. Screwtape continues:
I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention? You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy [that is, God] to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with those ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.
I thought of this correspondence when reading Chapter 1 of Adam Hamilton’s When Christians Get It Wrong. The theme of the chapter is, Christians often behave in ways that are inconsistent with the faith they profess. (In other breaking news, water is wet.) Here is one typical passage, in which Hamilton shares the experience of one anonymous young woman:
I’m thinking of the Christians in my school that I see every day. They judge everyone constantly. It’s annoying, and a lot of people don’t really like it or like them because of it. I have a really good friend who claims to be a really hard-care Christian but he smokes weed all the time and drinks and does all these things, and he’s just not a Christian at all.About her experience, Hamilton writes, “But this phenomenon is not unique to young adults. No doubt you can think of examples of Christians who were judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving.”
“You’re right, Rev. Hamilton! I can think of examples. In fact, I saw one living, breathing example of a judgmental, hypocritical, and unloving Christian when I looked in the mirror this morning!” In fact, even as I write these words (if you can’t tell from my tone) I’m feeling morally superior to you. A part of me wants my readers to recognize this superiority, admire my boldness in criticizing a well-respected leader in my denomination, and appreciate my self-awareness, which I hope they’ll mistake for humility.
See… I am a mess. I’m a sinner! And I’ve been a professing Christian for thirty-plus years! While I won’t excuse my sinfulness, I will point out that I am exactly the kind of person whom Jesus Christ came into the world to save: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17 ESV).
Honestly, is Adam Hamilton’s experience with sin different from mine? Has he already been entirely sanctified (as we Methodists might say)? If not, how do Screwtape’s words not apply to him, to the young woman he quotes above, to John, the young veteran whose conversation inspired this book, or to anyone else? If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?
See, while I wouldn’t deny for a moment that we Christians “get it wrong,” often, I would add that we Methodists, specifically, get it wrong when our doctrinal emphasis on sanctification causes us to lose sight of our justification. (I’ve said this before.) What I mean is this: We Methodists need to hear again and again that we are, in Luther’s phrase, simul justus et peccator (“both righteous and sinners at the same time”). We never outgrow the good news that we are sinners justified by God’s grace alone! Not an iota of holiness on our part (by which we Methodists often twist to mean “self-improvement”) will play a role in making us more or less acceptable before God.
Why? Because we are made holy and perfect before God for one reason alone: Christ has imputed his righteousness to us as a free gift. This truth ought to make our hearts sing!
Instead, we Methodists worry about cheap grace. So, as Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde says, we attempt use sanctification as the “final defense against a justification too liberally granted.” He continues:
God alone does the justifying simply by declaring the ungodly to be so, for Jesus’ sake. Most everyone is willing to concede that, at least in some fashion. But, of course, then comes the question: what happens next? Must not the justified live properly? Must not justification be safeguarded so it will not be abused? So sanctification enters the picture supposedly to rescue the good ship Salvation from the shipwreck on the rocks of Grace Alone. Sanctification, it seems, is our part of the bargain… The result of this kind of thinking is generally disastrous…… as my own experience bears witness.
Don’t misunderstand me: I completely agree that we Christians must repent of hypocrisy and all other sins as we become aware of them. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the power to overcome these sins and expect that he will. The Bible says that our lives must “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8), because faith without works is dead (James 2:17). But this fruit, our good works, and the extent to which the Holy Spirit enables us to overcome our sin, play no role in saving us. Good fruit, as Jesus says, is merely evidence of a healthy tree (Matthew 7:17). Only God can make the tree healthy. Once he does, the good fruit will follow.
Am I wrong? When we are justified and born again, does God say, “Now let’s wait and see how it goes”? Heaven forbid! Instead, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). While it’s true that we Methodists believe in the possibility of backsliding, backsliding isn’t the result of any sin other than the abandonment of our trust in Christ.
So getting back to Hamilton’s apologetic concerns for this book… When a young person challenges Hamilton on the hypocrisy of many (most? all?) Christians, he could turn it around on the person: “Yes, and if Christ will save a sinner as bad as that, don’t you think he can save you, too?”
To say the least, God’s mercy toward sinners is a feature of Christianity, not a defect.
I’ll deal with the rest of Chapter 1 later.
1.C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 189-90.
2. Adam Hamilton, When Christians Get It Wrong, rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 9-10.
3. “The Art of Getting Used to Justification,” mockingbird.com, 29 November 2012. Accessed 15 August 2018.