Friday, September 27, 2013
Third Day and the Bifurcated Christian
Christians have an amazing capacity for bifurcation. We seem to be able to hold two completely opposing views of the thing we think is the most important thing in the whole world, and we seem to do so very comfortably.
Take two songs by the group Third Day, both of which appear on their 1996 self-titled debut album. (I should say, by the way, that I really like Third Day, and am a proud owner of this album. Their song “Thief” is perhaps the most moving sung version of the Passion that I’ve ever heard…I get goose-bumps every time I hear it.) The first song is “Take My Life:”
This is a wonderful, gospel-saturated song, and a sentiment that almost every Christian would agree with. We know that we’re not perfect (even the most self-righteous among us would admit that) and we are aware that it is the grace of God that keeps us in the proverbial fold. This is why Christians have felt so powerfully described by St. Paul’s self-description in Romans 7: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (vv 15, 18b-19). We are, even if only subconsciously, aware of our need.
Which is what makes a song like “Did You Mean It?” so strange:
What can we possibly make of the fact that these ideas are seemingly both believed by Third Day at the same time? That God will take a sinner back to himself, time and time again, and that if a Christian sins time and time again, they’re probably not really a Christian at all? As difficult as these two ideas might be to reconcile, many Christians seem to keep both closely held quite easily.
But they can’t both be true.
If the lyrics of “Did You Mean It?” are true, then not one of us is saved. Not Mac Powell of Third Day, not Mother Theresa, not the Apostle Paul, not you, and not me. “Did You Mean It?”, both as a song title and as a sentence, is based on the Law. If you are obedient, then I will believe that your profession of faith was legitimate: “Now the time has come to make your promise true / But you sit around after all He's done for you / You need forgiveness, you don't do anything / No, you didn't mean it.”
Some of us are better than others at conforming our exterior life to the expectations of those Christians around us. None of us has much control over our inner life. The old adage still holds true: if you were to come across an giant movie screen showing the true nature of your thoughts, wishes, and desires from the last week, you couldn’t tolerate it for a minute. No one could. If the truth of our promise is judged by our doing, then no…we didn’t mean it.
Our relationship with God, however, is not built on our promise, it’s built on his! When God made his covenant with Abram, he puts Abram to sleep and then certifies the covenant by himself (Genesis 15:12-21).
God’s promise (a much more sure foundation than any promise we might make) is to be with us, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20): “How many times have I turned away? / The number is the same as the sand on the shore / But every time You've taken me back / And now, I pray You do it once more.”
Law and Gospel, God’s two words, cannot both be God’s final word. The Gospel triumphs over the Law, every time, rescuing us as we are being dragged to our deaths by our inability to keep the Law. When “Did You Mean It?” Christianity is choking you to death, remember that our promises are meaningless next to God’s promises and that God is the God of “Take My Life” Christianity, taking our lives onto himself, when we don’t have the strength to give them away to him. He takes them, destroys them, raises them up from the dead, and redeems them. “Today,” he promises the thief (and us), “you will be with me in paradise.”