Other than giving you verboten soda when your Mom isn’t looking, my role as your godfather appears to come down to these daft, dutch-uncle letters, explaining once a year what the hell we did to you by drowning you with water and word.
I saw you just the other day, little man, and I was blown away by how much you’re talking now. Per your age, you’ve advanced from saying our names to attaching demands and imperatives to our names: JasonAliIwantmoremacuncheeeese. I suppose, given the locquaciousness of your Dad, that you’re fated to talk people’s ears off. Your Dad will want the previous sentence to be a lesson to you. That was an example of the pot calling the kettle a motormouth.
Before the macuncheese, you were playing with a toy car at my house, a Lightening McQueen I bought Gabriel back when he was your age. Telling me about it, you showed it to me. Unwisely, I grabbed it from you. I wanted to appear as though I was appraising what you were apprising me of.
Your Mom corrected you (that’s what they do, little man).
You said IsorryJasonhereyoucansee.
And I replied: “I forgive you.”
I said it matter-of-factly, Elijah, but now, considering the anniversary of your baptism, it occurs to me that it was really a matter of faith, the matter of faith. Strip away the lace gowns, ornate liturgy, and lukewarm water, the faith into which we baptized you all boils down to how you receive the selfsame promise: you are forgiven.
It’s a promise with your name attached to it: Elijah, you— your sins— are forgiven.
Actually, the promise goes all the way back to your name Elijah. Folks in the Gospels mistook John the Baptizer for the prophet by whom you are named.
The difference between the baptism with which John baptized and the baptism into which you’ve been baptized is often misunderstood in churches or missed by Christians altogether, but the distinction couldn’t be more critical, Elijah.
John invited people to repent of their sins, get their act together, turn their lives around, and be baptized. John’s baptism was a work we do- we’re the active agents in John’s baptism.
John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon.
Our baptism is a work God does. Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon. It celebrates the work God has already done to pardon us. John’s Baptism was a baptism of repentance. Our baptism is a baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection; therefore, it’s a baptism of righteousness— a gifting of righteousness not a giving of repentance.
Let me put it another way, little man.
To answer the rich young ruler who queries, now that you’ve died with Christ, Elijah, here’s what you must do in your Christian life: _______________.
As Paul insists in Galatians— and give it time, Elijah, you’ll soon enough discover we’re all Galatians deep down: Christ + Anything Else = No Gospel at All.
We’re all born lawyers, Elijah. We do better with conditions and contracts. We’re not good at remembering such math. Like lawyers, we’re better with contracts. Conditions make sense to us not the unbalanced equation called grace. We prefer to parse our piety in if/thens, not realizing that, in doing so, we sound like satan in the wilderness.
Because God baptized you in to what Christ has done— his death (for sin) and resurrection (for justification)— there’s nothing you need to do now Elijah. In Christ, everything has already been done. You are forgiven, it’s full and finished— full stop. In that same letter to the Galatians, Paul says that in dying with Christ by our baptisms we have also died to the Law, to our religious doings. The good news, Elijah, is that you are not the good news. Because Christ won, you can never lose the freedom to lose.
But the same letter to the Galatians amply illumines our proclivity to confuse this crazy good news for a bitter pill we refuse to swallow.
Just wait until you have a truly close friendship, Elijah, or a lover or spouse. You’ll find out soon enough: to have your debt paid, gratis, is to grapple with a different kind of owing. Forgiveness is not a monotone word. Forgiveness is a word that kills as much as it makes alive, for accusation always precedes pardon in our ears. To hear “I forgive you of your sins” is to hear that you’re a sinner. We rush to respond to our forgiveness-ness in order to right the scales and to restore the balance of power. The Old Adam in you, Elijah, supposedly was drowned and killed in your baptism, but the Old Adam, as the adage goes, is a mighty strong swimmer. And a system of merits and demerits, a quo for every quid, comforts the Old Adam in us who is addicted to control.
The Word who takes flesh gives himself to our flesh in particular words. The presence of the Word is in the words of grace promised to us. Instead, like Eve and Adam, we go looking for other words to trust. They’re usually the ones we tell ourselves with forked tongues: Do your best and God will do the rest. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Forgive but don’t forget.
Look it up in the Action Bible we gave you, Elijah. Looking for other words to trust is the very heart of sin.
Since I worry that your Dad is a closet pietist, let me make sure you’ve got the necessaries down, Elijah. Only after 15 in the years the pulpit did I realize I’d assumed the main thing— grace— and instead had been majoring in the minors every Sunday. Turns out, most church folks love singing “Amazing Grace” and will surely sing it with gusto at funerals but ask them to articulate the doctrine behind it and their music-making will turn to mumbling. Forgiveness, Christians say, comes to us solafide, by faith alone.We receive God’s forgiveness not by anything we do but by (not so) simply trusting God’s declaration that everything has already been done. We’re justified as a gift from God, Paul preaches.
God’s non-accusation of us is actual.
It’s not something we achieve. It’s already been accomplished by Jesus. We only apprehend it by faith.
What the Church has called the Great Exchange, Elijah, Luther compared to the exchanging of rings at a royal wedding where by her “I do” all that belongs to the bride becomes the groom’s possession, fully and irrevocably, and by the groom’s unconditional “I do” all that is his becomes the bride’s. The bible refers to the Body of believers as Christ’s bride; therefore, as Paul puts it, our sin becomes Christ’s irrevocable possession and his righteousness becomes our irremovable wedding garment. Jesus is the fattest groom ever having ingested all our iniquity and imperfection. There is nothing you need to do for this to be true of you.
Like your Dad at a wedding, it’s simply pronounced, declared true of us, and not one of us nor any of our sins can tear it asunder.
Nor can any of our our right-doing improve upon it.
And very often our right-doing can tempt us to forget our perpetual need for it.
Despite all the evidence otherwise available to your eyes, Elijah, you are not only forgiven, you are perfect in God’s eyes because your imperfect record has been reckoned onto Christ— your rap sheet, however long or short it is by the time you read this, is forever his and his perfect record has been credited as yours. There is nothing for you to do to improve your relationship with God.
Your trust is all you have to offer. Now, at first, this sounds like a crazy lopsided deal, right? Christ gets all the bad shit we’ve pulled and all the shit we ever will pull; meanwhile, we get all the good he accrued. And all we’ve got to do is trust that it is so?!
It’s not called good news for nothing, Elijah. But the rub about “news” is that news necessarily comes from outside of you. News is a report of what another has done that impacts your life without you having done a thing. News might effect you but it isn’t about you, and if you’re not the content of the news then neither are you in control of it. As much as the ticker tape headlines that scroll across the CNN screen, this news of your forgiveness that’s received by nude faith— it can leave you feeling vulnerable.
It’s no wonder Christians are never satisfied with the answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” There is now no condemnation, the Apostle Paul promises. Nevertheless, to trust that promise alone is an enormous risk because it requires you to take the giver of that promise at their word. If there is any possibility of condemnation whatsoever, then nude faith, trust alone, is an outrageous, irresponsible gamble.
Frankly, little man, it’s not until you’ve had this sort of free forgiveness practiced on you by another in your life that you realize how the forgiveness offered by God leaves you naked and utterly empty-handed.
To receive forgiveness by trust alone is to shove all your chips to the center of the table, go all in, betting not just the house but your eternal home, wagering that the one offering you free forgiveness is trustworthy.
To do nothing but trust another who tells you your ledger is in the black is to trust that tomorrow or the next day or the day after next Wednesday, depending on what you do or what you leave undone, they’re not going to waylay you with a red ALL CAPS past due notice. Like Lady Justice wearing her blindfold, to receive free forgiveness by trust alone requires you to shut your eyes to the gauge on the scales and believe that the forgiving one will be faithful to their word.
Free forgiveness can cut us down to a size we spend our whole lives posturing against. To be in the right with another you’ve got to do right by them- seek restitution, make reparations, repair the damage you did— that makes sense to us. It’s how we’ve arranged the world. It actually gives us more control than does the free offer of forgiveness. To be in the right with another is to do right by them might put you on somebody’s shit list but it at least leaves you in the driver’s seat for what will follow. Whereas to be in the right with another is to be declared right by them takes away everything from you and leaves you empty-handed.
Faith alone in your promise of forgiveness is a total and complete disavowal of your own performance to merit it.
If I have to earn your forgiveness, for example, then at least I’ll accrue evidence external to either of us to which I can point and justify myself later that I did all I could or which I can use as leverage against you should you withhold forgiveness. Look at all that I did to make it up to you and still it wasn’t enough, I’ve griped to more than just my wife. If forgiveness is free though then, like on my wedding day, I’ve got absolutely nothing to hold onto but you. I’ve got nothing to hold on to but my trust in you. To trust that you forgive me is to have faith you won’t use my debt later to burn me.
Forgiveness isn’t cheap.
Yet, the bitter irony is this free forgiveness could cost you everything.
Your Dad preaches about holiness often so I’ll end there.
We are made holy, Elijah, we become more nearly the creatures God originally intended, not by ascending up to God in glory by way of our spiritual progress or pious practices or right-making doings. We do not grow closer to God or grow more like God through improvement. The language of spiritual progress implies a gradual lessening of our need for grace the nearer and nearer we journey to God.
Yet the God who condescends to us in the flesh of Christ is not ever a God waiting for us to make our way up to him. The God who came down to meet us in crèche and cross continues to forsake his lofty throne and comes down still, hiding behind ordinary, unimpressive words like “I forgive you.”
The words which justify us are the very means that sanctify us.
God does not change us by means of our religion.
God changes us- makes us holy- through these particular words.
We never advance beyond being sinners who are declared by God to be forgiven, gratuitously so. Holiness is our getting adjusted to our justification. By returning daily in myriad ways to this news of our abiding sinfulness and God’s free forgiveness, we become holy.
Or Paul puts it in a different letter, the holiness we already possess in Christ’s gift of perfect righteousness— it’s unveiled to us one degree at a time as we trust those words: you are forgiven. All is forgiven.
Your Aunt is an artist so she probably knows how Michelangelo famously said of his David statue: I just chipped away all the stone that wasn’t David.
Likewise, God is the Artificer who, by his justifying word that convicts and forgives, blasts away all the bits of you that do not conform to the blueprints.
For my money, though, Ali and I think you’re perfect.