Thursday, 10 November 2016

answer d: I don't know, but it's complicated

A friend asked on Twitter (over two tweets) yesterday, 'will those "Christians" who doggedly pursue wicked modes of thought in the name of Christ be forgiven - given they think themselves right, therefore will never seek forgiveness?!'

I said (over three tweets), 'ah, this is the sort of question twitter was made for. Some answers. a: I don't know. b: "Can"? I'd say yes (but see a). c: "Will?" I'd say it depends (but see a). When I have regained possession of the laptop and the house is abed I may take a longer run at it.'



The question was asked in the context of Donald Trump's election victory, which seemed to have been achieved with support from a significant proportion of evangelical voters, and of the positive response of some evangelical Christians to that victory, both in the US and here.

Having stayed up to watch a lot of the election unfold the night before, my body in fact took me to bed at ten last night, repossessed laptop notwithstanding.

So this is me today, taking a Twitter-unfriendly (and at this rambling length, let's face it, reader-unfriendly), off-the-top-of-my-head run at this age-old question without aid of safety net or Bible references. Who knows, maybe I'll be the first person to really settle it once and for all.

While I was becoming a Christian as a late teenager, one of the questions which exercised me was 'How wrong can you be and still be a Christian?' (Broadly speaking, incidentally, the questions I had as a teenager are still the questions I have.)

Can you be wrong about baptism (believers/adult vs covenant/'infant')? About the continuation of what we shall call miraculous charismatic gifts? About your approach to Sunday observance? About the role of women in the church? About same-sex relationships for Christians? About whether you could pray to and for dead people? About abortion? About whether you should only sing unaccompanied Psalms in church services? About whether you thought Jesus literally rose from the dead? About scores of things, large and small.

Some differences people were pretty relaxed about; others, people felt very strongly about. (And often, of course, one person's large was another's small.)

I was, obviously, thinking about other Christians who were wrong about things; but, of course, it cut both ways. What if I were wrong about these things?

I thought of 'how wrong can you be' primarily in the context of what you believed as a Christian. But that also feeds into 'how wrong can you be' questions about your personality, your behaviour, your morality. How thoroughly unpleasant a person can you be, how pettily corrupt as a businessman, how apparently outwardly unchanged by your (supposed?) inward faith, into how much disrepute can you bring the name of Jesus, and still be a Christian? Are you not a Christian, or are you just a bad Christian?

(Underlying, or at the heart of, the question was another question: 'How can Christianity be true when people believe such different things within it?' I'll just leave that there.)

The answer to not-quite-the question seemed to be that being fallible, finite sinners there is a wide range of things we can be wrong about and still be a Christian; and that there is a range of things we can be wrong about which definitively demonstrate/ emphatically indicate/strongly suggest/possibly hint that we are beyond the 'bad/wrong Christian' camp and in the 'not a Christian' camp, but that there is no agreed, definitive list of what these things are.

So what does God think about how wrong each individual Christian is in what they believe? What if it turns out I've misunderstood what he wants and have been worshipping him in a profoundly erroneous way - with hymns, say, or without women preachers? While others are breasting the tape joyously will I be saved barely, as through fire - or not at all? Or despite winning the doctrinal bingo ('full house!' on my theological positions) and imagining myself faith-full, will I be sent away, never having been known, because I have done insufficient good deeds (and believe me, I have done insufficient good deeds)?

Differences in views on baptism are pretty happily accommodated within the evangelical church today (though centuries ago Christians were putting other Christians to death because of them), but either believers who baptise their infants or believers who do not baptise their infants are doing something which God does not want them to do. Do they need to be forgiven? If doing something God does not want you to do, even in the name of worshipping him, is sin (here, for an example of a definition, is the relevant Westminster Shorter Catechism question and answer: 'What is sin? Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.'), then I guess they do, or will. Will they ask to be forgiven? Not while they live, if they hold their belief to the end. Can they be forgiven, then?

Does our every sin need to be ennumerated and repented of? Even if so, what of sins we do not think of as sins and so therefore never repent of? (Who hasn't done something which they only realised later - sometimes much later - was an awful thing to do and (literally or metaphorically) repented of? (Not least in someone's zealous Christian youth.) What if you never reached that later realisation?)

This might seem distant from Christians doing wicked things in the name of Christ (or, to gloss it variously: doing things they think are right but are wrong, or choosing the lesser of two evils, or prioritising the wrong morally neutral/good thing, or doing something morally ambivalent for the greater good; and doing so for the sake of Christ, or the church, or the furtherance of the gospel, or their commitment to what is right or true, though in any given case they may also be wrong as to whether it is what Christ actually wants) but it is, fundamentally, the same issue, I think. (And in the Bible, worshipping God in the wrong way is treated as seriously as anything else which would be familiarly thought of as sin.)

Where does your forgiveness and your salvation lie, and what is the relationship between those things and how you live your life? This takes us into F Scott Fitzgerald territory: 'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.' I don't know if he thought it applied to Christians, but Christians have to pass this test in believing and living by the Bible.

We are not saved by the good that we do. Faith without works is dead. Our good deeds are the evidence of our faith. We are saved by faith alone. We can never lose our salvation. We can lose our salvation. No sin is unforgivable. There is an unforgivable sin. Some sins are worse than others. There is no hierarchy of sins: every sin is deserving of judgement. We can fall away from faith and still be a Christian. Falling away from faith is an indication we were never a Christian in the first place. We have free will. God has foreordained all things. We choose God. God chooses us. You can think you are a Christian and not be one. You can doubt that you are a Christian and be one. And so on.

Hamlet's father was not in heaven because he was murdered in his sleep, without having said his prayers; Hamlet thinks killing himself would be a sin (of which he couldn't repent); Hamlet does not want to murder Claudius in the chapel because if he is murdered while he is praying then he will go to heaven.

Evangelicals - American or otherwise - have I think never taken such a mechanistic approach to the relationship between sin, repentance and salvation; but they/we certainly have to take sin and repentance seriously, in relation to their/our salvation.

But ultimately, I refer you back to answer a. I don't know. But it's complicated. That's as far as I've got, and here I stop with my thinking aloud.

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