Twenty years ago Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy took issue with bumper stickers and trinkets proclaiming "Christians Aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven."
Just forgiven! There's way more to Kingdom living than just being forgiven, Willard claimed, though far more eloquently than I.
Willard went on to say that our cute bracelets and coffee mugs told the world we could live any way we wanted and God was okay with us being just forgiven and not changing. Our God was cool with our choice not to live Kingdom lives. We could be just forgiven.
During those years in American Christendom, Willard contended, a war of words raged. Salvation was by faith alone. It was God’s work as a gift of grace for our faith. Nothing more nothing less. Doing anything smacked of works righteousness. Earning your way to heaven. Buying your ticket to heaven with good deeds and a good life.
I remember the war well. Even the act of Baptism was thoroughly parsed to ensure it was a response to God’s saving grace, not an act of salvation, which, if it was, would leave you lost.
On the other side of this word war were the social justice believers. Sure, they said, salvation came by faith. But shouldn’t that change your life? Shouldn’t your response be to want to make the world a better place? Shouldn't you want to end poverty and abuse and drug use?
Yes. Maybe. But, said the grace-by-faithers, you cannot tell me what my life should look like to be saved. I got grace ‘cuz I had faith. It’s all I ever needed. So you cannot come up in here and tell me what I am supposed to look like now. I have my Baptismal Certificate and that says I believed enough. I do my share of good. And I obey the two most important commands: I love God and others.
"But what do you do in response to what God did for you?" asked the social justice Christians. Don’t you feel some sort of indebtedness? And what about caring for the orphans and widows? And all Jesus’ talk of the poor? And James! Have you read James.
I do my share. The poor will always be with us. I tithe and teach bible class.
And racism? And gender equality? And war?
There is neither Greek nor Jew, nor male nor female. I believe that. I treat everyone exactly the same. I have black friends.
And what about you? Asked the grace-through-faith-alone Christians. Where were you when I sat day and night at the bedside of my best friend’s dying husband? Where were your armies on Christmas Day when we served at the Salvation Army? And who do you think funds the Salvation Army, for that matter?
It was a war of words. Both sides dug in.
Trench warfare of accusation and defensiveness.
There were no winners. Least of all the poor, the widows and orphans, the marginalized.
I have wondered lately if we are back in a war of words.
Or, maybe it just got quiet for a while until lethal weapons were added to the war.
I am not perfect. I am forgiven.
I am also called.
Called to heal the sick and proclaim the Kingdom of heaven is here.
Called to make the world a better place.
Called to everyone.
To the poor and to the rich, the widowed and orphaned.
To Black, Latino, White, Asian, Arab.
Called to the single and the married. The saved and the lost. Straight and gay. Female and male.
But we cannot proclaim the Kingdom of heaven if we are dug in our trenches in a war of words.
Is America racist or not?
Does God love gay people?
What role is there in God’s Kingdom for women?
Does God love Christian music with instruments?
What day is communion allowed?
The way out of the trenches is up.
Up where we can hear God first.
And then where we can hear one another.
When we hear one another from up where God is, instead of from down in our trenches, then we will be transformed more and more into God’s likeness. We may not agree with one another, but we will look more like the God whose Kingdom we are called to proclaim.
Then we will be far, far more than just forgiven.
Then we will be transformed.