In the recently published book ‘What would Jesus say?’, a minister speculates on what Jesus might say to some modern-day celebrities. What, for instance, would Jesus say if he walked into one of Madonna’s concerts? He believes Jesus would treat her as he did the adulterous woman of John 4 and challenge those who condemn her, ‘Let those without sin cast the first stone.’
What would he do to the ill-mannered, smart-mouthed Bart Simpson? Would he put him over his knee and spank him, or put him on his knee and encourage him? This minister is sure that Jesus would choose encouragement over discipline. He is concerned that the public image of God is too judgement-oriented.
Recently I heard of a preacher who told his congregation on the Sunday before the World Cup Final that he knew many of them would not be present the following Sunday, but he did not want them to feel guilty about it. The pastor approved ‘because Jesus did not come to condemn’, but to set us free.
Surely, he reasoned, it would not have been appropriate to ask anything like, ‘Does your staying home to watch the match mean you love soccer more than Jesus?’
All of this is symptomatic of a guilt-free Christianity – a Christianity that is all grace and no duty, all love and no justice, all heaven and no hell. In this form of Christianity, God’s job is never to challenge, convict or condemn, but rather to grant no-questions-asked forgiveness and to help us to feel good about ourselves. It certainly has the potential to be very popular with those who seek a Christianity that will make them comfortable with God and never cause them to feel uncomfortable in his presence about their heart commitments, priorities, or lifestyles.
As with many mistaken ideas, there are elements of truth in this teaching. It is true that guilt is never the end of Christian teaching. The biblical message reveals sin and produces guilt in order to lead us to Christ, the Christ who forgives – forgives fully and freely, taking away all our guilt and cleansing our consciences.
Moreover, once we come to Christ, guilt is not a good source of motivation for long-term Christian obedience. Our response to God’s grace should flow out of love and gratitude. Those pastors who beat the flock with guilt-producing messages are unwise shepherds with unbalanced ministries.
But are we so sure that Jesus would never say anything that would make us feel guilty? I wonder how the immoral Samaritan woman felt when Jesus asked her about her husband? (John 4:16-18). Are we sure he would never say anything that would make us feel uncomfortable? Did he not three times in succession ask Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ (John 21:1517). Do you not think that was as uncomfortable, heart searching experience for Peter, who had just recently denied his Master three times?
Are we sure Jesus would never challenge us about our priorities or loyalties? After all, he said, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, and even his own life – he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26-27).
Jesus did not come to condemn, but to bring salvation. However, he did not come to make us feel comfortable in our sins, to leave us as he finds us, or to settle for less than our wholehearted commitment. He is patient and forbearing with us in our many weaknesses and sins. He does not quench the flickering spark of grace, or deal harshly with the weakest believer. Rather, by his Word and Spirit, he corrects us when we are wrong and calls us to a life of grateful, unconditional loyalty to himself.
Can we live guilt-free? Yes, when we acknowledge our sins and repent of them. Yes, when we seek forgiveness and trust the power of Christ’s death to grant and guarantee that forgiveness. Yes, when we can say with Peter, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’