I'm coming at this blog post from multiple directions. First, I've been following a series of blog posts over at Experimental Theology called "The Slavery of Death." It's a 31 part series (at least for now), but in spite of its length, I recommend it as very thought provoking. Second, I'm teaching a mid-week Bible study on Romans. For some reason, while sitting here trying to finalize my sermon, I had an idea pop in my head that I want to try to get in writing before it disappears.
Dr. Beck has done a very good job of showing how death influences all that we are as humans. He makes the point early on in the series (possibly the first post) that we tend to think that sin leads to death. However, rooting his thinking in Hebrews 2:14-15, Dr. Beck suggests that it is the reality of death that in fact leads to sin. All we do and value, who we call heroes and what we call success, are all an attempt to run from our mortality. Please read Dr. Beck's series, as he explains this very well. The point is, our mortality holds us captive. We fear it. We run from it. We slink from it. All people die, and so we feel owned by death. We are prisoners...or so it seems.
This is where my thinking switches gears to my class in Romans. We are presently working our way through the first four chapters of Romans, the section of Romans used to advocate Justification Theory. A few years ago I became made aware of the book Deliverance of God by Douglas Campbell, which basically dismantles Justification Theory. But first, what is Justification Theory?
To oversimplify, Justification Theory basically argues that through sin humanity brings the wrath of God upon itself. There are no exceptions. Since all people sin at some point in their lives, all people deserve God's wrath. However, God punishes Jesus with the death everyone else deserves, therefore appeasing his sense of justice. Belief in Jesus then becomes a way for humanity to get our of its predicament. If a person believes in Jesus, Jesus' sacrifice on the cross gets substituted for his or her own deserved punishment.
There are some noteworthy issues with Justification Theory. I'll only try to list a few. To begin, God is first known as a God of wrath. Grace is the surprise no one saw coming, not the norm. Next, my salvation is ultimately up to me. Yes, God is the one who saves me, but only if I meet the right criteria (belief in Jesus), which is ultimately up to me. I sin, which earns me death. I believe in Jesus, which gets me the gift of life. Even though what Justification Theory tells us to say is, "Salvation is God's gift!" what it tells us to do is, "Make the right choices or else." Which leads to another problem, perfection is the standard. Justification Theory tells us we deserve death because we are incapable of doing right, and then expects us to choose to believe in Jesus. Well...if I'm not able to do right, what makes me capable of "believing" right, or having "faith in" right? I can't be perfect, in regard to my behavior or my belief, period.
(A very important aside here.... Faith in Jesus is an identity marker for Christians. I am in no way, shape, or form suggesting that we can call ourselves Christians if we do not believe Jesus was who he said he was or did what he said he did. Jesus was the incarnate Son of God, crucified, buried, and raised. He is King of King, Lord of Lords. He reigns still and will some day bring his kingdom to fruition. I have no problem with "faith" per se. My problem is how Justification Theory understands the role and purpose of faith.)
My gripes about Justification Theory could go on for pages, so I'll stop there. In his book Deliverance, Dr. Campbell offers us another option, another understanding of Romans and Paul. Basically, God is not a god of wrath. He is a god of righteousness, a righteousness specifically revealed in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. In other words, Jesus isn't the key we need to break out of prison. He is the Savior that breaks down the whole stinking wall. Forget the lock...the whole door is gone!
If this is the case, salvation is no longer up to us to earn. It's out there waiting for us with open arms. We thought God was a god of wrath, but lo and behold, we were wrong. God was never our enemy at all. He was working to set us free. And now, because of death having been defeated in resurrection, that freedom is there for us to enjoy. All we have to do is find the courage to leave our prison behind and enjoy the life God has waiting for us.
But therein lies the problem. Having only known the fear of death all our lives, we all have Stockholm Syndrome, thinking our captor is our friend. Having only known one way of living, it is difficult to adapt to the whole new way of life God wants for us, no matter how much better it might be.
In light of all this, let me finally get to the point of this post. There is a reason halfway houses exist. After time in prison, people have a hard time adjusting to a world that functions by different rules. They need time, support, and help to transition. As people held captive by our sin and fear of death, and now suddenly offered life, do we honestly think we'll be able to transition easily ourselves? No, we need halfway houses, and that is where the Church comes in.
The Church acts as a safe place were we can acclimate to the life and freedom we've been given. The Church is where we learn that God's language is a language of peace, not wrath. The Church is where we learn that humanity was made to sing, not weep. The Church is where we learn that our value is not based off of accomplishments and the standard is not perfection. My value is found in the fact that God loves me, whether you like me or not, and I don't need to be perfect because God loves me, whether you think I'm good enough or not. The Church is where we learn that justice is best defined by God's judgment of us, and his judgment was to say, "I'll die to set you free." The Church is were we learn that the best way to respond to hostility is to turn the other cheek, that the poor are blessed, and the meek will inherit the earth. In prison, all these things looked foolish, if not suicidal. Because of Christ's faithfulness to the point of death on a cross, I can walk out of prison any time I want, if I only find the courage to try. But if I'm really going to learn to live in the world God has made for me through his Son, I have to leave my prison days behind.
People like to look at churches and cry, "Hypocrites!" We're not hypocrites. We're criminals learning how to live again. Church is our halfway house.