When I was in college, I met some Christians who believed in the contract. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the contract, but I’ve seen it many times. It’s usually at the end of a thin little pamphlet.
These pamphlets lay out a version of Christianity that’s neat and simple and clean. God is good and you are a sinner. And because God is good and you are a sinner, God has no choice but to condemn you to eternal punishment in hell. But God sent his — and in these pamphlets, God is emphatically a him — God sent his son to take your punishment. Christ died on the cross in your place. He took the punishment you so richly deserve. And if you accept him as your personal lord and savior, you can trade eternal hellfire for eternal bliss. And you should do it now. Because you could die.
That’s the first part of the contract: believe these things.
Then these pamphlets have some version of the sinner’s prayer:
Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen. ((Billy Graham’s Sinner’s Prayer, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinner%27s_prayer))
That’s the second part of the contract: say this prayer.
And then, right below that prayer, there’s a place to sign and date. And there are a lot of people who can tell you the year and month and day — the hour and the minute — that they signed on the dotted line and gave their life to Jesus Christ.
That’s the third part of the contract: sign here.
And that’s okay. Different people walk different paths. Different people have different stories. And while I might not have signed a contract on the back of a pamphlet, other people have. And that matters to them. And the fact that it matters to them, matters to me.
These Christians who I knew believed in the contract. Maybe not literally — most of them had probably never signed the back of a pamphlet — but they believed in it all the same. They believed the things they were supposed to believe. They prayed the sinner’s prayer. They knew when they had accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior.
And I was never one of them.
Don’t get me wrong. I get it. It would be nice to have that kind of control over my fate. It would be nice to be that sure of my salvation. It would be nice if I could guarantee eternal life just by believing these things and saying this prayer and signing on the dotted line. It would be nice.
And there’s always the temptation to believe that I have that power. To think that I’m in control. To think that I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.
But I don’t. I’m not in control. I’m neither a master nor a captain. Thank God.
There’s something that comes along with the temptation to be in control: the temptation to judge. And there’s something that comes along with the temptation to judge: the temptation to condemn. If I know the list of things that we have to believe, then I can scrutinize your beliefs and tell you where you fall short. If I know the prayer that we have to pray, then I can listen to your prayer and tell you which words are wrong. If I know that my signature is on the contract, then I can tell you why it’s wrong if yours isn’t.
And I can look at the world and all of its horrors — its poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred; or, in simpler language, its sin — can condemn it. I can do that. I’m good at it.
But I don’t have that power. I’m not in control. I’m neither a master nor a captain. Thank God.
Because when God saw this world — its poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred; or, in simpler language, its sin — God did not condemn it. God loved it.
And God loved the world this way: God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who had faith in him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send her son to condemn the world, but to save it.
And that means all of it. Not half of it. Not some of it. But the entire world.
We are in the middle of Lent. We’re almost to the end. Soon, we’ll remember that Jesus was betrayed, that he died, that he was buried, and that he rose again.
We are in the middle of Lent. We’re almost to the end. For not, we remember that we have been dead. We have been dead through our trespasses. We have been dead through poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred. In the simplest of language, we have been dead through sin.
That doesn’t mean we’ve been in the ground; it means something worse. It might seem hard to believe, but we have been walking around like zombies. We’ve been missing out on the chance to really live. We have stayed in the dark because we’ve been too afraid to to let the world see us. We’ve stayed in the dark because we’ve been too afraid to let God see us.
We’ve been so afraid that God will condemn us, that we’ve condemned ourselves.
We’ve been so afraid that God is like us, that we’ve condemned ourselves.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even in this season of Lent — even in this season of prayer and penance — there is good news. Especially in this season of Lent — especially in this season of prayer and penance — there is good news.
Because God saw us, dead through our sin, shambling in the dark, and loved us. And God loved us this way: God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who had faith in him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send her son to condemn the world, but to save it.
And that means all of it. Not half of it. Not some of it. But the entire world. Even you. Even me.
Now, I want to be fair. The pamphlets are right. I am a sinner. I am a sinner because I choose to sin. I am a sinner because I’m caught up in systems that leave me no choice but to sin. I am trapped in a world where I do not know how to be the person who I believe God is calling me to be. The pamphlets are right. I am a sinner.
And if it were up to me, I would condemn myself.
And I want to be even more fair. The pamphlets are right. I can be sure of my salvation. I can know that eternal and abundant life is there. The pamphlets are right. Another life is possible.
But here is something I am sure of, here is a way that the pamphlets are wrong: There is nothing I can do that will save me.
There is nothing that I can believe that will make God love me. There is no prayer I can say that will make God save me from my sin. There is nowhere I can sign that will make God extend her grace to me.
Because God has always loved me. God has already saved me. God is grace-filled and grace-giving. That is who God is.
Grace is not a contract. Grace is not a deal. Grace is a gift.
And there is nothing we can do to earn it. God gives it to us because that’s who God is.
Being a Christian — having faith in Christ — doesn’t mean believing a list of things or praying a certain way or praying or signing on the dotted line. Christians around the world and throughout history have believed so many things and prayed in so many ways. Being Christian must be about more than the list of things we believe or the ways that we pray.
Being a Christian means — at least in part — trusting that God is rich in mercy. It means trusting that even when we were dead through our sins, God raised us up. It means trusting that we do not need to stay in the darkness and condemn ourselves for our sins. It means trusting that we can step into the light, in all of our brokenness, and God will still love us.Being Christian means trusting that we can step into the light, in all of our brokenness, and God will still love us. Click To Tweet
That is why I can be sure of my salvation. That is why I can know that eternal and abundant life is there. That is the other life that is possible.
And it means trusting that this is true for everyone. Not half of us. Not some of us. But the entire world. Even me. Even you.
And here’s the thing. That work is much harder than believing the things and saying the prayer and signing on the dotted line. That work is much more important than having a moment of conversion. That work is much braver than judging ourselves and the world. Because when we can walk into the light and open up to God — when we can be vulnerable to God’s love — then we can begin to love others.
And then we can be what God intended us for be: created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life. Amen.