Grateful to start the week with this reflection from Alex Chapota:

Like many people in ministry, I receive a lot of Christian-related forwards via Facebook and WhatsApp messenger. Friends usually expect me to comment or even forward these messages onward. Plenty of them are insightful and even inspirational. Other times they kick off a debate, as happened the other day.

It all started over a message that was targeting couples, about how Christian couples can live together with less fights if they understand and apply certain principles. It went on to explain why couples fight, saying it was because of different upbringings, values, and educations. In haste, I commented:

(Beautifully written… You will fight, argue and do all sorts of stupid things against each other because BOTH OF YOU ARE SINNERS.)

Not exactly an admirable response, especially coming from someone who claims to be a student of Christianity. But soon after I posted it, others wasted no time reminding me that sin was overcome by grace and that as believers we have to choose not to cling to sin and instead take up the easy yoke of Christ. Backing verses, included Philippians 1:20-21 and many others.

Without going into the nitty gritty details of the whole conversation, the main issue at stake appeared to be that of sanctification. You know, becoming Christ-like in our daily lives by showing good behaviour and performing good deeds.

In our quest to be relevant and attractive in today’s culture, the church, even here in Malawi, often packages and sells Christianity in terms of its practical benefits.

Having a happy marriage or a stress-free life is not unimportant, but there is a big difference between that and the gospel. When we confuse the gospel with good advice, we end up developing a system of practices that puts pressure on us to save ourselves: If we want our kids to turn out Christlike, the onus is placed on us. For my marriage to succeed, I have to work hard on being spiritual, which means following all the do’s and dont’s. The church becomes a gym where we build our spiritual muscles.

You can probably tell that I am confidently pessimistic about the kind of Christianity that develops muscles over time, either through hard work or by the enabling of grace. The way we grow spiritually, I’m convinced, is by not training ourselves into sinless-ness, but by coming to grips with our sinful nature, consequently losing trust in our own “Christian muscles” and throwing ourselves more and more on God’s mercy.

This kind of theology is difficult for us to grasp because as human beings we strive so much to retain some control over our lives. I know I do. The muscular version of Christianity sounds spiritual and impressive, which is usually what people both inside and outside the church are looking for. 1+1=2. In the same way, if we devote ourselves to the right kind of technique or spiritual disciplines or even best theology, we think we can improve ourselves and even our relationships. We just have to work extra hard and develop strategic muscles on our spiritual body.

Yet justification and sanctification are entirely the free gift of God; even our good works, after we receive His gift, are not of ourselves but ordained by God for us to walk into them. Who we are as believers has nothing to do with what we do and everything to do with what God has already DONE.

Of course, it is always not easy for us to receive things freely. Even when given a gift, rarely do we accept without feeling an inclination to return the favour. We are good at purchasing. There’s no free lunch, we are told. Just imagine how it feels when someone offers to buy you a drink or coffee. I don’t know about you but my immediate inclination is to think of how I can repay them there and then, or next time. In the same way, instinctively we would love if God would just allow us to repay Him, or at least allow us to train ourselves into shape. Fortunately, God does not operate according to our whims or logic.

In his essay found in a book titled Perspectives on Our Struggle with Sin: Three Views of Romans 7, Mark A. Seifrid writes:

All growth and progress are a growth in faith, which in the changing circumstances of life grasps Christ and what God has done in him…

Christian faith, by virtue of its confession of Christ, remains sober and realistic about the limits of progress. We are called to reject all idealistic fantasies and to accept the painful and humbling truth that we — both individually and corporately — remain sinners so long as we remain in this body and life.

Indeed, we must delight in being sinners: not sinning, nor in being sinners per se, but in the painful yet joyful confession of being sinners who live under the saving lordship of Christ. Our weakness is more than matched by Christ’s strength.

Progress in Christian living is thus paradoxical. We go forward by ever going back to Christ crucified and risen for us. Christian growth often is construed as a gradual, upward path to sanctification. This picture is false and unbiblical. It implicitly carries us away from Christ and the liberation from ourselves that only his cross and resurrection can give.

We are not called to progress in ourselves away from Christ but to progress in Christ away from ourselves — away from the fallen reality that determines us as children of Adam. All progress is a return to the beginning of the Christian life, where it enters more deeply into the wonder of God’s love in Christ in the face of our sin and misery. The “flesh” can neither be reformed nor rehabilitated. It must be crucified.

On this side of eternity, muscular Christianity (upgradable version) is a contradiction in terms. The gospel message is that, despite our self-centered spiritual exertions, God declares us righteous. We were unable to live up to the demands of the law before faith in Christ, and that remains the same after that faith is given to us. Thanks be to God that in His mercy He has moved to extend the forgiveness of all our sins, yesterday, today and forever. We are free! We live by faith, from first to last. Amen!