In this article I want to address a particular problem: What we might do as Christians with those who see themselves as “alumni” of the Christian faith. By that I mean those who once professed that Christ shed His blood, freely justified them before God, forgave their sin, gave them eternal life — but now they don’t believe it.
Given my limited space, I can only deal with today’s “sad ones,” the “having-given-up-on-it-all” ones. (In the full address of which this article is a condensed version, I also talk a little about the gospel of Christ for today’s “mad ones,” the angry ones.)
For some reasons that I think are fairly specifiable, more people than we would like to think leave “Bible-believing” Christianity. Some are sad about it. Some are mad about it. In our day, there are so many of these people that it is hard not to come into contact with them. Many of these people were broken by the church. I know that sounds harsh. As Christians, it’s upsetting to hear words like that. But for many people, this is how they really see what has taken place in their lives.
By the “sad alumni” of the Christian faith, I mean the hundreds whose acquaintance with the Christian church was often one in which they were helped to move from unbelief (or from rank moralism) into professing faith in Jesus Christ. They heard the preaching of God’s law and then heard the announcement of Christ’s work on their behalf on the cross — Jesus as the God-man who met the Law’s demands for them and died for their sin, died to save them, died to give them eternal life. And they came to believe that the cross of Christ was their salvation.
But something happened after that, something that broke them. And, in many cases, I think what happened is nameable. It has to do with what our first president at Christ College Irvine called “law-gospel-law.” It’s that third point that, if executed badly, results in a lot of the “sad alumni” of Christianity. If Reformation folk execute this badly, the sensitive Christian believer can be driven to a slavery as bad as any slavery done by any totalitarian dictator. If the Ten Commandments were not impossible enough, the preaching of Christian behavior, of Christian ethics, of Christian living, can drive a professing Christian into despairing unbelief. Not happy unbelief — tragic, despairing, sad unbelief.
In the beginning, it seemed that now that we had been justified by the death of Christ, we were equipped to obey verses like “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Or in 1 John 3:9: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning.” Or Paul in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” And then, the unexpected. Sin continued to be a part of our lives; it stubbornly would not allow us to eliminate it the way we expected. Continuing sin on our part seems to be evidence that we aren’t really believers at all. We start to imagine that we need to be “born again again.”
When the major stress in pulpit and curriculum shifts from “Christ outside of me, dying for me” to “Christ inside of me, improving me,” the upshot is always the same: many broken, sad ex-Christians who despair of being able to live the Christian life as the Bible describes it. So they do what is really a sane thing to do — they leave. The way it looks to them is that “the message of Christianity has broken them on the rack.” To put it bluntly, it feels better to have some earthly happiness as a pagan and then be damned than it feels to be trying every day as a Christian to do something that is one continuous failure — and then be damned anyway.
The key question here is a very basic one: Can the cross and blood of Christ save a Christian (failing as he is in living the Christian life) or not? Most of us would say, I hope, that the shed blood of Christ is sufficient to save a sinner all by itself. So far, so good.
But is the blood of Christ enough — all by itself — to save a still-sinful-Christian? Or isn’t it? Is what Luther said about the Christian being simul justus et peccator biblical or not? Can Christ’s righteousness imputed save a still-sinful Christian? And can it save him all by itself? Or not? I think the way we answer this question determines whether we have anything at all to say to the “sad alumni” of Christianity.
Has the Law done its killing work on these “sad ones?” Boy, has it ever. They need more of the Law like they need a hole in the head. For them, the gospel often got lost in a whole bunch of “Christian-life preaching.” And it “did them in.” So they left. And down deep there is a sadness in such people that defies description.
C.F.W. Walther said that as soon as the Law has done its crushing work, the gospel is to be instantly preached or said to such a man or woman. What the “sad alumni” need to hear (perhaps for the first time) is that Christian failures are going to walk into heaven, be welcomed into heaven, leap into heaven like a calf leaping out of its stall, laughing and laughing as if it’s all too good to be true. It isn’t just that we failures will get in. It’s that we will get in like that. “You mean it was just Jesus’ death for me, that’s why I’m here?” But, of course. That’s the point isn’t it? As a believer in Jesus you won’t be condemned! No believer in Jesus will be. Not a single one!