You don’t see it when you watch the Rose Parade on TV. The cameras are located on the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado Blvd. We lived just a few blocks away and went regularly. During those years, after the last flowered float came a scruffy-looking bearded man dressed in black carrying a huge pennant proclaiming, Repent. The End of the World is at Hand.
I often wondered what he thought he was accomplishing on that national holiday in front of that crowd. Yes, repentance is in order—for those who hold themselves accountable to the God of the Bible. What you also don’t know is that a major part of the crowd lined up three or four deep along Colorado Blvd are church youth groups who came the day before and spent the night on the sidewalks of the parade route. Are they proud to see this man and his message? Not the kids I knew.
The Christian message of sin and salvation is deadly serious. But we no longer live in medieval Christendom when the place you spend eternity was a pressing issue. We live in an affluent America where less than half take seriously the nation’s Christian heritage and its worldview.
Guilt used to be a good motivator. It’s built into the Roman Catholic heritage that so many ethnic immigrants brought with them. The Protestant revival tradition in this country came with lots of “hell and brimstone” preaching to scare hearers into repentance and conversion. This country began with a distinctly Protestant character that was considered a civic religion well into the 20th century. That was Protestantism mostly in the Calvinist form. For Martin Luther, the Reformation was all about reforming the Christian church. A generation later John Calvin focused on reformed personal behavior. Ethics is a major topic in those circles. Any discussion of ethics highlights good behavior. The opposite is bad and thereby guilt-inducing.
Back in my pastor-father’s day, organized discussions among pastors focused on casuistry—discussing case by case what is acceptable behavior in a congregation. The big issue then was divorce. Jesus’ standards were especially challenging. What was not acceptable meant ex-communication. But what is the path of faithful ministry today when half the marriages end in divorce? Churches that cannot deal with divorced people have a very limited audience. Besides, do churches exist to kick people out? What does that say about the Gospel?
What can we learn from the Apostle Paul and those earliest churches?
First, Paul did not presume to speak for a whole nation. Those early churches were a tiny fraction of the very pagan Roman Empire. When he guided the Corinthians as they dealt with a case of sexual immorality in the midst, Paul commented. “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Corinthians 5: 12). We Christians in America can no longer presume that we are in a Christian nation that accepts Christian standards. A major and growing percentage do not even accept the biblical worldview.
Second, Paul emphasized the Good News that the God who sent his Son into this world is a loving God. The Old Deal that often emphasized the Angry God did not work. God initiated the New Deal that features his grace in Christ and the motivation provided by his Spirit. In contrast to relying on the Law to shape behavior, Paul emphasized the freedom brought by the Spirit. Through God’s forgiving grace and the freedom brought by the Spirit, we can have hope.
Paul was not a moral philosopher. Those Christian thinkers came in subsequent centuries, especially after Christianity became the religion of the Empire. Paul was the apostle of the heart set free with life-defining motivation and empowerment by the Spirit.
How important to you is defining the proper moral life of Christians? How important is God’s grace in the way you live your Christian life?