October 18, 2017

No Stinking up God’s Place! (or, “How to Be Perfect like God”)

I’m pleased to introduce you to our newest writer, Craig Bubeck. I’ve known Craig for a decade now as a fellow editor and as a book co-writer. But most of all, Craig is my dear, dear friend. When we have gone to writers’ conferences together, we would sit up late into the night talking theology and writing and C.S. Lewis and baseball. Craig is a great writer because he is a great thinker. As you know, I am very particular as to who writes for InternetMonk. Craig is one I have wanted to write for us a long time, and now, well, here he is. Please join me in welcoming Craig to the iMonastery. 

by Craig Bubeck

We hear it all of the time in modern evangelicalism. “God is pure, and he cannot endure impurity.” Most skeptics I’ve come across dismiss such a god because (1) he must be some supreme perfectionist who just can’t stand impurities in his house (“Ooh, get it away . . . it burns, it burns); or (2) he would have to be the supreme grump who gets just plain irritated by it (“Whew—wow! Get that stench out of here . . . it’s stinking up the place something awful”).

I don’t consider those characterizations to be irreverent, because I now believe they are byproducts of a well-intentioned but wrong-headed (sometimes wrong-hearted) evangelical idolatry, which I have long and enthusiastically practiced and preached. I came by it honestly enough, though . . . it’s ubiquitous in just about everything evangelical. Nevertheless, the consequence is a doctrinal malady in the Western church of which I’d like to argue it’s time we all repented, especially in our evangelizing, preaching, and teaching.

Christian faith is not about sin management, it’s about managing to love.

God Is No Perfectionist

Just think about it theologically. Of course God can literally endure the presence of sin and sinners . . . he did so as God the Son, growing up for some thirty-plus years in a fairly sin-ridden, Roman-occupied Palestine; and ultimately he suffered sin’s direct effects in person, upon a cross. (I’ve engaged some Gnostic-styled skeptics who actually will argue against the deity of Christ for the very reason that God supposedly cannot endure the presence of sin.) Likewise we’ll all have to at least agree God will certainly endure the momentary presence of sinners in his heaven upon the occasion of judgment. (Maybe he can just hold his nose for that long.)

Sometimes it seems to me we’re fond of using purity euphemisms to rationalize God’s holiness, as if he were so intolerant of sin and sinners because he dares not risk becoming impure himself. This I believe to be because of our misinterpretation of many passages in Scripture aptly describing God’s holiness, and our common misunderstanding of sin as merely being about evil deeds and motives.

Perhaps most significantly, we tend to want to make sin about performance, rather than relationship—we want to exclusively see sin as a verb. Ironically, describing sin as merely missing the mark, itself misses the mark—it falls short of the real problem of sin. When sin is described by Jesus, the apostles, and the Old Testament prophets in terms of missing the mark, it’s like describing a sickness by its symptom: “I have nasty congestion and a cough” when you have the flu. It’s not incorrect, just not all of the picture. Folks will understand your meaning fine and well when you focus upon the symptoms, because that’s what we all recognize as a problem. But heaven forbid (literally) that the prescribing of a cure be only for the symptom.

Adjusting Aim

When we understand sin as “missing the mark,” our questions should be, What is the mark that’s being missed?

The answer is of course not merely we miss God’s holy standards, but we miss holy God himself. This is the significance of Jesus’ insisting that he himself is the way and the truth and the life—it’s why he could insist, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). For good reason he didn’t say that none come to the Father except by merely obeying his teachings. It’s by Jesus himself . . . in person.  It’s about being in relationship, not performing. Any performance that’s going to be acceptable is only so in relationship to him.

This is also why any amount of righteousness we accomplish, no matter how good and on the mark, could still be characterized by Isaiah as worthless “filthy rags” (64:6). If there is any so-called righteousness God won’t endure, it’s what we’ve accomplished while divorced or estranged from him. Rather, what God loves is the kind of righteousness Isaiah goes on to describe—righteousness by people who would “call on [his] name” and “take hold” of him (v. 7).

The real evil of sin is far more than falling short of rules and laws—it is that anything should be done on one’s own, independent from God. It’s my independent will, not merely my short-falling actions, that deeply offends God. The very purpose for which I was created—to love God of my own volition—is what I would deny God and rebel against. That’s sin.

Scriptures clearly and repeatedly represent sin as something we are in, not just what we do. The real problem of sin is a noun—but it’s not a substance or thing; it is a state of being. This is generally what is alluded to by the theological concept of “original sin.” The sins that we do (verbs), though odious and offensive to God (for good reason), are merely the symptoms of the noun—the problem of sin that every human is born into. It’s probably too bad we don’t simply have different words for each (like we do with “disease” and “symptom”), because it is far too easy to confuse the verb “sin” for the noun “sin.”

So what is the noun—what is this state of being, known as “sin”? Basically, it’s independence from God. It is the great divorce into which every human is born. We are all separated from God, operating as our own supreme beings in our own little universes. We are, as the serpent described to Adam and Eve, “like God” that way—we are the ones who would know for and by ourselves what is good and evil, rather than as God would have it (Gen. 3:5). This is the “knowledge of good and evil” that we by nature inevitably claim for ourselves—what we interpret and apply by our own wits, rather than in relationship to God.

What Makes God So Holy

As with sin, so also holiness—we evangelicals can be just as prone to make holiness all about perfection, when it is actually entirely about intimacy. Accordingly, perfection is not what makes holiness holy—any perfection that would be holy is merely its symptom (as verb-sins are to noun-sins). The irony is that love is what makes holiness (and anything or anyone) holy.

This, it seems to me, explains why a holy God would necessarily humble himself by way of incarnation. And it is also likely why God the Son would have been necessarily born sinless. His holiness (what set him apart) was not his mere inerrancy; rather, it was his unfailing love. It is love that is preeminent, not flawlessness.

Predictably, the calling by Jesus to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48) is an especially popular object for a proof-texted justification of sin management. We should (and must) know better, though. After all, this is the last verse of Matthew 5: Jesus’ summary conclusion to the first installment of his seminal Sermon on the Mount. From the Beatitudes, through and through, that sermon is famously all about love, variously applied. So how could folks so readily pull this verse out of a context that explicitly proclaims, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44)? I’m convinced it’s the very same evangelical idolatry that would mutate holiness into sin management. Many of us desperately need to sanctify our personal perfectionism.

Just consider that sinless incarnation of the consummately holy God the Son. It’s not as if when he became a man, the Creator needed to avoid contracting some viral or genetic dispositions. Sin is independence from God; and God the Son, though fully in human form, cannot be independent from God . . . if for no other reason than that he himself was and is fully God. So it should follow that the reason Jesus would not commit (verb) sins was because he was not in the (noun) state of sin. The reason Jesus was perfectly sinless was because he was perfectly in love with the Father (and Holy Spirit).

Called out, but into

The holiness that Christ, the new Adam, had in his very nature was the same available to, but rejected by, the first Adam: intimacy with God. And it is no less what remains available to us today through redemption, justification, and sanctification. This is why it is so inadequate to characterize holiness as being merely “called out” or separate from the world. A so-called holiness that is about isolation, in a fortress against the world, falls far short of the holiness of God the Son’s incarnation.

No, godly holiness is about being called into the same new-Adam intimacy with God and neighbors that Jesus lived and breathed, in the flesh. Love for God and other people was his original design—it’s nothing less than the very meaning of life; it’s lacking is what is wrong with our fallen nature; and it alone can be the remedy to the sin of separation.

I’ve wondered at times, could the first Adam (and Eve) have remained intimate and therein sinless in relationship to God? It’s interesting to speculate; regardless, that’s clearly not our lot. All have sinned, without exception (save the new Adam). The inevitability of our doing sin proves we all have it. What we inevitably must all inherit is a mind that, left to itself, is bent toward independence from God. (This, by the way, is why a Christian mind should never be left to itself . . . a believer’s will that chooses independently from the intimacy of the Holy Spirit must by definition be “in sin.”)

This too must be the significance of Jesus’ describing himself and the Father as “one” (John 10:30): God the Son and God the Father are more intimate than what any married flesh (a la Gen. 2:24) could approximate. Perhaps this is what is so particularly holy about the Holy Spirit—the third person of the Trinity is especially the Spirit that binds us so intimately together: in the church, human to human, and human to God.

God’s very triune nature is about intimacy. This is how God could himself be the very definition of love (1 John 4:8, 16). So it must be with us humans created in God’s likeness. As the New Adam proved, intimacy with God is our only means of freedom from sin . . . noun and verb, now and forever.

What God Won’t Endure

So just what is it that God cannot endure? Well, first of all, I’d submit that we should be loath to even use that syntax “God cannot.” It smacks of the same illogical argumentation as God’s supposedly being unable to create a rock too large for him to carry. The foolish logic in that is, of course, that one presumes to fault God for not being able to not be God.

Likewise, what God will not endure in his presence is the sinner who insists upon being free from his presence. In short, insisting God cannot endure sin in his proximity begs the question of his nature—God would never deny a rebel’s choice to be in rebellion, forcing him or her to not be a rebel. Perhaps the real point is, it’s far more the rebel who cannot endure being around God.

Sin is all about being god of your own will, and therein opposed to the will of the one true God. All that we call “sins” are merely the very natural byproducts of the real problem—our state of being divorced or estranged from God. And if there is anything God will not endure, it is the forcing of people, against their wills, to be for or with him. Rebels must not be forced against their will to live in a kingdom that exists for and by the king’s will.

God can endure the smell and offense of sin in his presence just fine. But forcing people to love him and love other people—that’s a rock that is not only too big for God to carry, but whose very existence is impossible . . . and nonsense.

So rather than propping up and proclaiming our figures of a perfectionist God who either legalistically or impotently requires appeasement (that is, our perfectionist version of so-called “propitiation”), we who are authentically holy should frame our thoughts and explanations for propitiation in God’s terms: love.

We know it’s true, deep down in our souls—we know Jesus was absolutely right in insisting all of the rest of the law in its entirety (including justice and appeasement) hinge on love for our God and neighbors. It’s love, not wrath and just deserts, which we all secretly root for. Justice is really only truly appeased when love sacrificially reaches across the real chasm that makes sin, sin—when love reaches past its rejection.

When God and his people lovingly cross over the breach to the unloving and unloved, that’s propitiation, that’s justice, that’s holiness . . . and that’s the only worthwhile standard of perfection we must practice and proclaim.


  1. “For good reason he didn’t say that none come to the Father except by merely obeying his teachings. It’s by Jesus himself . . . in person. It’s about being in relationship, not performing. Any performance that’s going to be acceptable is only so in relationship to him.”

    Dear Craig,

    I could have copied and pasted much of what you wrote here… This is glorious, and I am going to be coming back again and again to ponder what you have said… If I could only take this in once and for all I might find some rest… Thank-You!

  2. Christinaity is about changing behavior. That was one of the lessons I leanred in a very “loud” way. To suggest otherwise will bring out the Pharises screaming, “Heratic!!”. Many itch and crawl for a fight, and for parts of this crowd faith is about finding sin in another person. The other problem about “sin management” is that to make it work one has to lie through their $%# on a regular basis. Nope…no more problems with alcohol. No more problems with money. Nope no more problems with that Sports Illustarted Swimsuit Edition or porn. Nope everything is peachy. This is one of the reasons why I find Christianity to be harmful. It encourages a culture that creates and supports dishonesty. And I don’t want to be a part of that at all.

    I really don’t know where the broken is supposed to go. Most people arn’t good enough to be Christians and if your honest about that, you will be screwed and left out to dry.

    I don’t know what the answer is. I wish there was a way to take back what was said and not have been honest. The other possibility is that it would have been wonderful to have known what a scam fundgelical Christianity can be. But when the jeanie is out of the bottle you can’t exactly put it back in there.

    • The answer is God’s love…not ours.

      Yes, we also ought love the unlovely, the undeserving…but we so often don’t.

      We are REAL sinners who need a real Savior.

      Christ Jesus is that Savior.

      He loves and forgives REAL unlovely people who are quite ungodly…like you and me.


      That’s the gospel.


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Steve, I’ve been in Eagle’s position, just not as extreme.

        To someone in that position, your answer reeks of Pious Platitudes recited in rote Christianese. Next comes the Four Spiritual Laws tract and the pressure for The Sinner’s Prayer. doubleplusduckspeak INGSOC.

        • Sorry you feel that way about the gospel.

          But what I said to Eagle was the gospel, pure and simple.

          Maybe it sounds like pious platitudes to you because you are not used to hearing the gospel.

          Maybe you never really knew what it was in the first place. I was in that boat for a lot of years and many are still in it today.

          • HUG never said it wasn’t the gospel. What he DID say was that; “your answer reeks of Pious Platitudes.” There’s a HUGE difference.

            And frankly, your response to HUG comes across as pure unmitigated gall, that you would presume to question his salvation.

            Sorry, dude, but you’ve seriously dropped the ball on this one.

          • Steve, you went over the line a bit here in questioning someone’s salvation.

          • Chad Williams says:

            Ted, does not Eagle claim to be an atheist or agnostic, so therefore there is no salvation to question.

          • I never questioned anyone’s salvation.

            I just said that if someone is upset at the gospel, maybe they have never heard it.

            I’m sure the Lord will save people who have never heard the gospel (I hope that He will).

            Let’s clear that up right now, Ted…I do not know anyone’s eternal destiny.

          • Chad, my comment was about what Steve said to Headless Unicorn Guy, not to Eagle. And as for salvation, with God all things are possible.

            Steve, I was responding to your statement, Maybe you never really knew what it [the Gospel] was in the first place. I’m sorry if I misunderstood, but please know that HUG could easily interpret it the same way. And I’m sure that he’s heard the Gospel. He’s recited it back to us in many and colorful ways. And thanks for clearing up that last part too.

          • James’s comment just came out of moderation and it looks like I’m not the only one to misinterpret. 😉

          • It never ceases to amaze me (although I should be used to it by now) that some people do not like it when other people try to lend aid and comfort by telling them that it (salvation) does not depend on them, but solely on the God who loves them and died for them.

            Why this rankles some is quite odd.

            But, then again, the gospel has really never been all that popular, even while the religious ladder climbing project soars to new heights.

          • I’ll leave you to figure it out, Steve. I’m going to bed.

          • “I never questioned anyone’s salvation.

            I just said that if someone is upset at the gospel, maybe they have never heard it.”

            Sorry, Steve, but that’s not much better.

            The issue here is not the gospel, but how it has been used, repeatedly, to try to batter people like Eagle into submission to the party line.

            So no, this isn’t an issue with the gospel. Rather, it’s the insensitivity of throwing the gospel at someone who is more than familiar with it because of the number of times he has been beaten with it.

          • James the Mad,

            I tried to take away the lack of assurance and the lack of knowing (about the gospel), because Eagle asked. The statement “most people aren’t good enough to be Christians” deserves a proper answer.

            In Romans 1:16 St. Paul tells us that the gospel “is the power of God…”, so when I or anyone, repeats the gospel, it will do what God intends it to do.There is no religiousity involved, but rather faith, or trust in God’s Word to do what He has promised it would do.

            That’s all from me tonight. Gonna hit the hay.

          • Steve….you mean well. I don’t doubt that point at all. Part of the problem is that you have what the Bible says, vs what the church says. I’d suggest that there are many “orthodox” Christians living in opposition ot the Bible. I know what the gospel message is, but I also know that its not easily accessed in many churchs. Many places add on to it. Or they make the gospel to be about behavior modification. Look at the scandals and burned out people from evangelicalism today. That is a part of the system.

            But you mean well…I understand that…

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            But what I said to Eagle was the gospel, pure and simple.

            Maybe it sounds like pious platitudes to you because you are not used to hearing the gospel.

            Maybe you never really knew what it was in the first place.

            Real slick passive-aggressive comeback, Steve. Claiming I couldn’t possibly be saved without actually saying so. (And you didn’t even know I was a theistic evolutionist.)

            I’m sure God will give you an extra brownie-point cookie at the BEMA. Better start polishing your halo.

      • Jonathan Brumley says:

        A salvation that includes sin is not salvation, because our hearts love God and desire to be free from the slavery of sin.

        The good news is that in His love he offers us the grace of Christ to free us from our sin! Sanctification is a promise of God to all who love Him. We can hope with confidence that we will be transformed in the image of Christ our savior, and when we come into his presence in heaven we will be entirely free from our bondage.

        Paul and the early Christians rejoiced to suffer like Christ and be made more and more like Him. As grace worked in them, they grew closer to God, their ultimate desire.

        The words of St. Ignatius on the way to his martyrdom: “I am the wheat of God. I must be ground by the teeth of wild beasts to become the pure bread of Christ.”

        God bless you all!

    • Eagle, I have to disagree with you, at least partially, on this one. Many Christians try to make our faith about behavior modification, but this is an entirely false gospel. In fact, if all the gospel does is make us change the way we act, then it isn’t good news at all…It’s just news, no different from any other 12 step program or self-help book. Like you, I’ve been burned numerous times by people who call themselves “Christian”, but in different ways. However, I’ve been able to discern the difference between us fatally flawed Christians, and the person of Christ.

      I agree that the evangelical “accountability partner” idea has created a culture of lying, minimizing our sins so that we can appear to be more holy; casting stones at those who are brave enough to admit their real flaws and shortcomings. This is not Christ, nor Christ-like.

      Sin is real, and we have a real Savior. I think it was DL Moody that wrote, “If your sin is small, your Savior will be small, as well.” I feel sorry for folks who cannot admit the depths of their depravity, whether it’s public or private confession. They minimize their Savior when they do this. I feel equally angry and sorry toward those who can’t identify their own sins, but readily point out the shortcomings of others. But again…this isn’t Christ. These are fatally broken individuals that want to be Christ-followers, but just don’t get it. Eagle, I’m guilty of weighing my own sin against the sins of others, and finding myself on the lighter end of the scale. We all are guilty. Some of us just won’t admit it.

      “We evangelicals can be just as prone to make holiness all about perfection, when it is actually entirely about intimacy.”

      This is a beautiful thought…My faith isn’t based on how other Christians have treated me in the past, but on this Christ, who for some unknown reason, actually likes me; delights in me; loves me. I can’t explain why anyone has bad experiences (why God lets bad things happen to good people), except to say we live in a fallen world. It happens. We either allow it to define us, or we use our experience to make us better individuals, and attempt to make the world a better place.

      • Lee faith shouldn’t ben affected by other people I agree with you. But try going to an evangelical church and doing or saying otherwise. Admit a problem…ANY problem and fundys will expect this immediate transformation all due to Jesus. Or that you wont have a problem. The pressure to fit in will result in further dishonesty. This is part of the reason why I’m weary with Christianity. At the same time for years and years it was hammered into me “what is Christian” in a very narrow, ill-defined way, so the other traditions don’t feel like they are Christian.

        But how do you have a faith or be in an evangelical setting and state or believe otherwise? Part of this is the culture…evangelical culture brings this out in people and reinforces it. That’s why I state why Christianity is about behavior modification. Try belieivng otherwise.

        Can you imagine the quandary that Christians put alcoholics, gays, addicts, mentally ill, and even those with illness in by believing otherwise. This is why many of the above mentioned people are not a part of many chruches today. Maybe this is why people who deal with past mistakes, or being gay are so angry at Christians today.

        About 2 years ago a freind invited me to a Presyberterian Church service here in Northern Virginia. I went once and the Pastor spoke about this issue. And he stated that transformation WILL occur when you become a Christian and that you will sin less. This was not the only environment I heard this message. I heard it in non-denominational setting, as well Baptist and third wave/charasmatic.

        I’m sorry Lee but experience taught me otherwise.

        • Eagle, I honestly don’t know if I sin any less than any non-Christian…probably not. But I do have a different attitude toward my own sin than I would otherwise…Without Christianity, I doubt I would consider sin to be sin at all. Why would I? I would just do whatever I wanted, and forget everyone else. Relative morality would be my rule of life.

          A lot of people are angry at the church, angry at God. Always will be, I’m afraid. Christ is still Christ, no matter who we are…you and I and everybody else…and no matter how we feel. As always, I respect your opinions and enjoy the dialogue…but I’m not sure you got the heart of this post Craig has written for us today. A lot of Christians “don’t get it”, and live in that fundamentalist mindset. But, there are some out there who “do get it”. I would bet you’ve experienced some of those people yourself.

        • Sometimes I think the only difference between myself as a christian and someone who is not is that when I sin, I feel bad, repent and actually want to try to do better the next time. I feel we are on this faith journey and sometimes we back-peddle or sit by the side of the road or get thrown off the road altogether because we give in to temptation – and then we dust ourselves off, get our bearings back and realize we have wandered from our journey and start plugging along again. For me it is more serious, since I am of the clan that says its possible to lose your salvation.

          And Eagle, I like honest people -not the kind that wear the mask or hide behind facade that says they are happy-clappy and never sin. Forget about it – we all sin. When I get into a discussion with someone and they are riciting like they are part of the borg – it is my perception that they are hiding their true self or there is a constant struggle going on just below the surface. I want to shake them and say “Be Authentic!” – because ythey are sure not impressing me and their feet are rin reality still touching the ground even if they feel they are floating a few feet above others.

          And as for self help christianity – yup … I got a few of those books in my house courteousy of my lovely wife – and they all read the same (If I see anything published by Zonderman? I run screaming)

          And Eagle – I keep telling you – your free at this moment in time as you discern – step out of the box and away from fundy christianity when you get the urge to check in again – you have other choices….not all of christianity is that world…

          My thoughts…

          • Agreed with Radagast on many levels. Eagle is one of the most authentic and frank posters here, or anywhere I visit, and I always appreciate his contributions. I also appreciate him outside of the iMonk world. As I’ve stated before, we all wander in the same post-evangelical wildnerness….and we all have a different view of the sky as we make our way. The dialogue on iMonk is healthier than I see on most “Christian” blogs, because varying opinions are welcomed. This is a diverse, functional community where we can all speak freely.

            I’ll also agree that there are plenty of options out there for Christians that are not fundagelical. Good ones.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Lee faith shouldn’t ben affected by other people I agree with you. But try going to an evangelical church and doing or saying otherwise. Admit a problem…ANY problem and fundys will expect this immediate transformation all due to Jesus. Or that you wont have a problem.

          Remember JMJ/Christian Monist? His entire blog is about this phenomenon.

    • Eagle, everything you say always hits so close to home. I wish it did not. So I am going to shamelessly piggyback.

      A quick caveat: Dishonesty, not to mention the whole problem of connecting to other people, is one of those universal human problems. So that is not uniquely an evangelical problem.

      That said, it is among evangelicalism’s problems. As the article hints above, evangelicals often think of God as ‘pure’ and also Christian holiness as the quest to be ‘pure,’ so that the failure to be pure or to be properly striving and moving toward it becomes an instant problem that has to be cleared up, or everyone gets nervous. The idea that holiness equals purity seems to promote evangelical obsession with sexual sins, because there’s an established tradition of using purity metaphors to discuss virginity and non-lustful love. The idea that holiness equals purity also it emphasizes questions of personal sanctity and taint, so that one’s most pressing worries frequently rest on ‘being corrupted’ by ‘the world’ and various ‘worldly things.’ The result is frequently pressure to present one’s self as pure and to feel pure, which makes honest self-examination and disclosure harder than it might otherwise be. I did not really see any of this until part-way through college, most likely because I was guilty of perpetrating these ideas myself. But it was at that time that I began to notice how much verbal gymnastics people went through to ‘package’ any self-disclosure in a way that would be acceptable, and then I caught myself doing it — or feeling that certain things simply could not be said at all (mainly on the topic of doubt, but I think I may also have felt that way about profound grief or persistent and steamy personal problems, if those had been chasing me). I courted a lot of thoughts quietly because — besides being a very internal person anyway — I felt inherently that they could not be spoken or articulated in the spiritual language that I knew. I also feared that people would immediately see whatever I was saying as a grave problem and attempt to correct it. (And in fact, that is what the 17-year-old me would have done to the 20-year-old me!) Even when people were really trying, unless they were really in full sympathy (as in, had the same problem), there was always the danger that the well-meaning conversational partner might want to switch into super-spiritual, let’s-fix-this-mode, which would instantly change the conversation into one where I knew I was either in need of ‘help’ or was ‘dangerous’ and could only dispel that impression by saying the right things. The pressure, of the logic and language, but not always in the motivations of the persons speaking, was to pretend whatever the concerned believer was saying made perfect sense and was helping. “Oh, yes, you’re right, I’m sure I just need to pray about this more.” “Oh, yes, I’m sure if I read Lee Strobel’s book, that’ll clear everything up with my doubts.” Essentially: “Oh, I am sure there is no real problem here after all. Nothing to see here, move on, move on.”

      Intent was not always the problem. I think the problem was just that there was an instant barrier set up between the person trying to be pure, and the person who needed to be purer. It was very hard to figure out how to make the barrier go away. It utterly surprised me, but it seemed as though feelings of doubt or deep pain (let alone actual, nasty sins) transported one outside the community. Even if no one said so, I still knew it was true. It was in the structure of my beliefs to feel it. So when the ritual of praising or repenting or self-convincing doesn’t make something go away, what do you do? It seems so strange that it is possible to be isolated spiritually when everyone is trying so hard to be insanely nice all the time.

      To me, one moment where this dynamic became very clear (and bizarre) was during the temporary obsession that existed among some college students for Josh Harris’ ‘I Kissed Dating Good-Bye.’ Here we all were, talking for hours about the fear of somehow loosing purity, over the earth-shattering issue of whether somebody peck-kissed somebody else, decades after the modern sexual revolution. With all the real problems that exist, we were discussing *that*. And occasionally also, whether or not a real Christian could watch an R-rated movie, although that was always for sport because almost everyone did, with impunity. The last generation of evangelicals had already chaffed with their fundamentalist parents over that issue. (Someone should have asked if a real Christian can watch porn, but that seemed outside the imagination!)

      But, back to Harris. This was the real clincher to me: Harris and other courtship advocates argued that merely becoming emotionally attached to a dating partner or crush created a connection that should only be reserved for marriage. In other words, they were taking the entire ‘bruised flower’ metaphor for discussing pre-marital sex, and applying it all the way out to simple friendship and infatuation. Somehow, it would be possible to love someone, have a connection to them, and there was a very real risk that this experience would mark you or corrupt you forever, ruin your ability to think or feel ‘purely’ in future relationships. The most genuine and strongly felt the connection, the more disastrous, if you didn’t wind up married to the person. Not too many people bought into that particular notion in that form — it is, after all, just odd — but i’ve always suspected that this illustrated the strange fear that love can corrupt purity.

      How can you love people when you’re deep down afraid that love itself might undo you? How big of a wall do you need to be pure, exactly, and who can surmount it? Everybody gets that the incarnation is somehow about this, but we have a very hard time getting “the Christian life” to mirror it.

      • Danielle,

        What a great sharing! When I was in college or high school for that matter I did not know the culture you were entrenched in. My finding of faith came later, after I had made many mistakes. But I have to say as i read your words that you must have been under a lot of pressure to have to be a certain way, kind of a reverse peer pressure or at least one different from my own. I was at the other extreme, a cultural christian that at the time was acting more like an agnostic pagan. And that produced its own scars. But this line of thinking might cause one to be too afraid to be authentic, which could carry over into one’s marriage relationship, and just like i had to take years to undo the affects of past behaviors, so too do I see this as something that could cause barriers as an unwanted side affect. Kind of like the old Catholic guilt sex is dirty thing….

        One other thing I’ve learned in my 20 years of marriage…sometimes my spouse just wants me to listen, without judgement or advice or “let’s fix it” mentality… and when I am successful at it – it can be the best gift I can give her because she can feel safe in sharing who she it. This is what I hear you saying.


        • “One other thing I’ve learned in my 20 years of marriage…sometimes my spouse just wants me to listen, without judgement or advice or “let’s fix it” mentality.”

          Yes. A fix-it mentality is great when it comes to things that really are problems and that really can be fixed. But when struggling with something more fundamental, especially something as deeply important and personal as faith, it’s not clear that we should even think of people’s experiences as problems that need fixing or as questions that need answers. Maybe doubt, grief, etc. are just ordinary areas of life where we need to meet each other and meet God. We just live with experiences and in them. Preferably not alone.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        The idea that holiness equals purity also it emphasizes questions of personal sanctity and taint, so that one’s most pressing worries frequently rest on ‘being corrupted’ by ‘the world’ and various ‘worldly things.’

        In Slacktivist’s words some months ago, “Holiness defined in primarily NEGATIVE terms.”

        Slack’s example was Christian (TM) actor Kirk Cameron, whose catechesis along those lines has resulted in highly-neurotic behavior even for theater arts/showbiz types. Such as appearing in only Christian (TM) movies (such as Left Behind: the Movies), insisting that his RL wife MUST serve as stand-in for any scene involving kissing and/or touching “to prevent Adultery”, and locking himself in his greenroom trailer to prevent contamination when he discovered there were HEATHENS working on the set. So neurotically trying to keep his nose squeeky-clean to pass the Great White Throne Litmus Test that he’s missing the whole point of the exercise.

        I began to notice how much verbal gymnastics people went through to ‘package’ any self-disclosure in a way that would be acceptable, and then I caught myself doing it — or feeling that certain things simply could not be said at all (mainly on the topic of doubt, but I think I may also have felt that way about profound grief or persistent and steamy personal problems, if those had been chasing me). I courted a lot of thoughts quietly because — besides being a very internal person anyway — I felt inherently that they could not be spoken or articulated in the spiritual language that I knew. I also feared that people would immediately see whatever I was saying as a grave problem and attempt to correct it.

        Indirectly feeling out the other, making sure the other isn’t a Secret Police Informant before you out yourself as a dissident. Any D&Der who was also in an Evangelical or Nondenominational church in the Eighties and Nineties knows that drill very well. And not only a gamer, but anyone who was “different”. Beware Thou of The Mutant.

        And you know what? Pretending the Party Line like a Good Comrade, always assuming the other is a possible Secret Police Informant until proven otherwise — THAT’s what the Body of Christ has become? What’s Wrong with This Picture?

        • Wow, your comparison of Church to the roll play game Paranoia (it is Paranoia you were refering to here wasn’t it?) has opened up an awsome picture of one of the most awful “Christian” cultural trends. we’re all a bunch of sinstained people sniffing out the others while we conceal ourselves. incredible.

        • Not that I’m a fan of Kirk Cameron or like his movies, but if he thinks it’s better for his marriage not to kiss another woman (repeatedly, since there will be multiple takes), what’s wrong with that? Though using his wife as a stand-in is pretty silly.

          • There was a Catholic actor a couple years back (don’t remember his name) who turned down a role because it would involve a hot-and-heavy love scene with a (very attractive) woman. Some people at the time said he was a hypocritical prude for refusing this role but gladly playing violent killers. But there’s a world of difference between pretending to kill someone on screen and actually making out with someone.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            …if he thinks it’s better for his marriage not to kiss another woman (repeatedly, since there will be multiple takes), what’s wrong with that? Though using his wife as a stand-in is pretty silly.

            That’s the difference between morality and neurosis.

        • “Indirectly feeling out the other, making sure the other isn’t a Secret Police Informant before you out yourself as a dissident.”

          I never realized this until being immersed in a community where virtually all members were evangelicals, a few years after my conversion. But yes, that’s what people did — and once someone made it “safe” to be candid, others would start talking in great earnest, like they’d been dying to air their thought on this point or that point for a long time. This observation presented all sorts of questions that I thought about for a long time later.

          Lest anyone misunderstand, I do not think many people meant to create a dynamic like this, much less act like an “informant.” Mostly the environment was a byproduct of many people feeling that they were living on an island holding out against all sorts of evils–and fearing that these things were always about to seep in, by means of other community members.

    • Eagle, what makes you think Pharisees are Christian or that Phariseeism equals Christianity? I think the error at the heart of your frustration is mistaking the imitation for the reality. You are judging the perfect, holy, loving Jesus by some of his imperfect, unholy, unloving followers. You can’t look at them. Look at Him.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Bob, check what I commented on Steve Martin commenting on Eagle.

        To someone in Eagle’s position, what you are saying is going to sound like The Party Line recited by the Borg Collective.

        • So what do we say?

          • OK, I’ll take a stab at this. The fundamental problem with the comments that HUG is critiquing is that they fail to begin on any kind of common ground with where Eagle (and many others to greater or lesser extent, including myself) is, or to acknowledge the authenticity of what he is stating. I have a hard time with that because there is common ground and because I’ve had some similar experiences, so I appreciate his honesty. I’d start by acknowledging the reality of what he is saying.

            At the same time, I know believers who are the genuine article, the real deal, and who don’t do the things he describes. I hope that he will find a community like that, and I hope I will, too.

          • How about:
            I’m sorry… you’re right.

            … for starters.

          • +1, esp. to John’s comment.

            I think when people are struggling with past experience with a religious community, repeating the beliefs of the community kind of misses the point. It’s not like they don’t know all the beliefs already, complete with all the community’s favorite stories and one-liners. All that stuff just reminds the person of past uncomfortable situations where the beliefs being expounded upon have been misused or ignored.

            And again, I might be projecting, but it seems to me that the place to start to is acknowledge what is being said and to let the person know that you get it, and can identify, or–if you really disagree or don’t relate–at least be willing to have a conversation in which you are trying to ‘get it.’ I would think this is especially important if the person’s difficulty is pastoral, and doubly so if the person feels alienated from their current or past religious community.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Well, if you’re a history buff or model railroader, you could get Eagle talking on either of those subjects. Not sure what subset of the former floats his boat but for the latter it’s Northern Pacific or Western Pacific in O Scale. And he hails from that steambath called DC, so he’s probably seen some pretty strange things going on around “That Nest of Vipers” according to Al Swearingen.

          • Darn! I’m into HO Scale. And while I live in Wobbly (WP) territory, I’m more interested in intermodal and the era I call “merger mania,” when the BNSF was formed and UP bought out SP.

            Oh well. 😉

          • Aw, DC is not so very bad. We’re up in Baltimore, and life is pretty good. Besides, so many interesting things happen in DC that the madness can be forgiven. In any case, it’s a good place to join the rioting hoards when the world ends. 🙂

            History trivia is pretty much what I do for fun and profit. I even have a dissertation that proves it AND gives me new bug-squishing and door-stopping powers. But alas, you’re all cooler than me, as all I know about railroads is what I learned while making a giant list of the Interstate Commerce Commission railroad valuation records. The most I can claim about the Northern Pacific is that a volume of reports about them once fell on my head.

          • HUG…

            Now you got me going!!! 😀 😀 😀 While you mentioned the Northern Pacific you forgot the Milwaukee Road!!! That will REALLY get my blood going. The books I’ve read and musuems I’ve visited!! 😀


            But the Little Joes, Box Cabs, Westinghouse Qills, Steeplecabs as the Milwaukee used in Deer Lodge, Butte, and Harlowton, Montana!! And who can forgot some of the trains the Milwaukee ran. From the Olympian Hiawtaha, Columbian, and the Hiawathas between Minneapolis and Chicago.
            The steam engines the Milwaukee had were fascinating from the S1 “Little Orphan Annie” used in the non-electrified gap between Avery, Idaho and Othello, Washingtonm; to the S2, and S3. The 261 is a beauty if you’ve seen her in person. 🙂


            The Northern Pacific is another one, which HUG got right!! If anyone is up for a discussion on the northern steam locomotive designs, A1, A2, A3, A4, and A5. The A1 Timken was phoenominal in how it influenced roller bearings in the RR industry, but that was in the 1930’s. And who can forgot the North Coast Limited or Mainsteeter or Alaskan. Did you know from 1900 until its demise of 1971 with the creation of Amtrak the North Coast Limited had a 95% arrival time. Amazing…just amazing!!

            Yeah….I’m a train nerd!! 😉

          • James…hey I also like modern railroading as well. I railfan CSX in Maryland and have a blast doing it. But I attended college in Montana when the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe merged in 1995. I can’t tell you how odd it was to see warbonnet Dash 8-40CW’s and 9’s in Montana especially when one is used to railfanning cascade green.. 😉 But I’ve also driven up to Horseshoe Curve outside Altoona and watched Norfolk Southern action.

            But for the record let me state that I’ve been in discussions and exploration with a couple of Christians. One of the guys I am in discussions with loves trains. He likes to model the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, known as the Nickel Plate Road. I sent him 4 more questions tonight by email. But in between deep theolgical discussions by email and phone we still talk trains. He’s an evangelical…but very different than others that I ahve known. I love and respect him immensely, and if I could find a chruch with more poeple like him, then yes I’d explore faith more openly. Prior expereinces have left me hesitant. If I’m going to be a Christian again it will be to my own choosing, and when I feel comfortable. Faith, cannot be forced. It takes time to grow and I think this is going to take time to heal.

    • “Christianity is about changing behavior.”

      Of course Christianity seeks to change our behavior. But a call to holiness has many meanings. It seems that all belief systems and ideologies have as part of their goal, some change in behavior. Living a fulfilling life and making the world a better place are goals that most atheists, agnostics, Buddhists, Hindu’s, Jews, Muslims and Christians have.

      Changing our behavior keeps us from living selfish and stagnant lives. How you motivate people and what you motivate them to do are where the differences in belief systems lay. If you are looking for behavior change without the individual’s input and free will – real brainwashing, go to Mao’s China or better yet, present day North Korea – free from the poison of religion.

      • Living a fulfilling life and making the world a better place- I have trouble with this. “This is the work of God- to believe in the one he sent.” John 16:9

        I suppose, if we’re going to be really strict interpreters here, we can say that John 16:9 constitutes a “behavior change.” As long as you’re willing to concede that for many people much of the time, in fact for ALL people at least some of the time, “behavior change” means almost nothing that is quantifiable by human measurement.

        Not to totally write off what you’re saying, because I do see an error where we could fail to even expect any interest/awareness of Jesus at all. I’ve certainly seen that and it’s not pretty. I would never throw away the many verses about bearing fruit, the primary fruit being a love for Jesus himself. But I have a negative gut reaction to phrase like “fulfilling life” and “making the world a better place.”

        • Also what good is “behavior change” if in the circles you also move in you know atheists and agnositcs who have high moral standards. There are people who don’t have any faith at all that can have high standards who could pass for Chrisians/ Why should they become a Christian if they alreayd are living “a moral” life?

          • “Also what good is “behavior change” if in the circles you also move in you know atheists and agnostics who have high moral standards.” – Because you aren’t those people. They have their own journey.

            For many it is a question of what is true. For others it is a question of merely what works, e.g. AA. – truth comes from their experience.

            No question that many agnostics and some atheists, in my experience, can live more selfless lives than many Christians. They are often very motivated, gifted people – and then there are the rest of us who need some way be motivated. But even then, many good people will ask the question, “is that all there is?”

            Why become Christian? Maybe there is even more to life, and more life to live than we thought possible.

  3. The problems not that God caint stand our stank. The problems that we made a deal with the devle, and the det must be payed in innosent blood. Thats why God had to become his own son and get burned at the stake.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I have often heard Habakkuk 1:13 taken out of context and used as a bludgeon.”Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.”

    His next statement contradicts what he has just said. “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? ”

    He was showing his frustration with the circumstances surrounding his people, not stating a universal truth.

  5. Can’t stay, but I’ll second what you said here:

    “So just what is it that God cannot endure? Well, first of all, I’d submit that we should be loath to even use that syntax “God cannot.” It smacks of the same illogical argumentation as God’s supposedly being unable to create a rock too large for him to carry. The foolish logic in that is, of course, that one presumes to fault God for not being able to not be God.”

    That illogic has always irked me, too. Of course God can. The question is whether he will.

  6. This was a great article. I love, “The reason Jesus was perfectly sinless was because he was perfectly in love with the Father (and Holy Spirit).”

    I wonder if Craig will be reading our comments. I see that this was originally posted when Michael Spencer was still with us.

    • Joanie, Craig just wrote this yesterday. I chose the “iMonk” monicker so that people wouldn’t think I wrote it. Well, of course they wouldn’t. This makes too much sense, whereas my writings…

      And yes, I imagine Craig will read and respond to comments. I’m glad you liked this!

      • Jeff,

        What’s this “whereas my writings” ….. Don’t rob God of the Glory of what He has done in you and because of that what he has done and continues to do through you….Your words, Jeff, spoken from the heart, have touched the hearts, souls and minds of many on imonk, myself included.

    • Craig Bubeck says:

      I am reading, and I’m humbled when I see any resonating. Thanks. 🙂

      • Thanks, Jeff and Craig. Sorry I got thrown off by the “by iMonk.” I should have realized when you called Craig a “fellow editor.”

  7. Brilliant! Thank you, Craig. I will definitely keep coming back to this.

  8. this was awesome- thank you

  9. I’ll write about the article soon, but I noticed when I read the byline, you have the wrong person credited with the piece.

  10. Glenn A Bolas says:

    Excellent article. Thanks Craig. Too often we use these old biblical words, but idiosyncratically and parochially, without considering that the mental framework they inhabit in our minds may not be completely identical with that of our biblical and ecclesiastical forebears. And since they’re biblical words, we feel uncomfortable about reassessing our definitions and categories. It smacks of liberalism. Thanks for giving a different, and helpful, perspective on a couple of these.

    Oh , and I like this- “And if there is anything God will not endure, it is the forcing of people, against their wills, to be for or with him. Rebels must not be forced against their will to live in a kingdom that exists for and by the king’s will.” Reminds me of Lewis’s famous line ‘In the end, each man will either say to God ‘Thy will be done’ or God will say to him ‘Thy will be done.'”

    Mind you, it sure doesn’t smell of tulips to me. Are there any Calvinists in the house who would care to weigh in?

    • Craig Bubeck says:

      I think if one is inclined to smell tulips, one can always understand that what what God will or will not endure could always have been (before the foundations of earth) predicated by his will. 🙂

      Per your earlier comment . . . that was particularly the sentiment that drove me to write this. It’s just hard to sugarcoat (in my mind, at least) “propitiation”–for good reason, I suspect, it’s hard to escape the obvious images of various pagan gods demanding appeasement.

      If propitiation is not entirely about love (and I mean entirely), it’s hard for me to see it as anything but antithetical to it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Are there any Calvinists in the house who would care to weigh in?

      Shouldn’t that read “Are there any Calvinists whom God hath Predestined before the foundation of the world who are Predestined to weigh in?”

    • “And if there is anything God will not endure, it is the forcing of people, against their wills, to be for or with him.”

      The best way to understand Arminianism (which this is representative of, although the thinking here is not as well developed as Arminius) vs Calvinism is:

      “What is God demonstrating in history”?

      We should understand – God is telling a story.

      So, what is the point of that story? What is God trying to say?

      For the Arminian, the story is all about us, humanity’s choice, our free will.

      For the Calvinist, the story is all about God.

      • Craig Bubeck says:

        Meh . . . see, the point still is, God (sovereign as he is) will not endure it. God’s foreknowledge need not preclude man having a will. (I’m loath to even use “free” when describing human will for that reason.)

        I’m not staking out a camp either way in this article or this statement. But for many an Arminian too, the story can easily still remain God’s for the very reason that it is also about us, humanity’s choice, and our (not-necessarily-so-free) wills. This would be because God not only authors the story of humanity, but he authors the characters in the story. Any story is very much about the author, even as he or she makes it about the characters.

        Besides, if we are truly created in God’s likeness, then what about us or what we ever do could be not be about God in terms of our relationship to God?

        I’ve played in both camps and am ambivolent; but I’m not going to dismiss either, nor did I intend to promote either here (in this phrase). Calvinists too believe humans have a will, as irresistable as God’s grace may be.

        • I do appreciate your distinction here between sin (noun) and sinning (verb). Many people think that we are somehow innocent, then we sin once or twice, and now we’re sinners. You’ve made it clear that we sin because we are sinners.

          That said, the article seems lacking on God’s giving of laws, and the purpose of Hell. If the only thing that upsets God is people doing their own thing, why not give them a nice place to hang out among themselves where the two parties don’t have to see each other. Good fences / good neighbors and all that…

          • Glenn A Bolas says:

            Because we are contingent creatures who want to live as though we were not. If God actually granted us our desire to live completely independently of Him, we would in that moment cease to exist.

      • Hi Nedbrek,

        As an Arminian, I don’t think that that is the best way to understand Arminianism. It is the way Calvinists would want you to understand it. 🙂

        The story is that of Salvation. Both Calvisnists are Aminians are focused on that story. The Calvinist focuses on God’s grace, but Arminian focuses on our need to respond to that grace.

        • Yes, it is a testament to the faithfulness of most Arminians that they instinctively want to give all glory to God.

          However, this comes only through the failure to consistently apply their presuppositions.

          If the central pivot of history is the Cross, and if salvation depends on us – then it really is all about us and our response.

          • Like Christmas – I think the giving is more important than the receiving. But I can still turn down the gift.

          • Sure, but God gives to everyone the same, right? It’s what we do with the offer that matters?

          • Well if you want to put it that way….

            Haven’t you just paraphrased John 3:16?

          • John 3:16 is a proclamation of what God has done for us. It in no way indicates where the power to believe comes from.

          • Except for the fact that it says “whoever believes” not “whoever God gives the necessary faith to believe”.

            Do a biblical word study of belief. Belief or trust is our response to God.

            But in the spirit of compromise, I will echo the response of the father who’s son was tormented by an evil spirit… “I believe, help my unbelief.”

          • “Belief or trust is our response to God.”

            I agree, we must be regenerated before we can believe.

            1) Election
            2) Regeneration (via the washing of the Word)
            3) Response in repentance and faith

          • I think we are going to have to agree to disagree on this one. Obviously I see the process quite differently. Perhaps we can have a fuller discussion on this at another time. Not that we will be able to solve the Calvinism – Arminianism differences, but it might be fun to highlight assumptions, presuppositions, areas of common ground, and differences for readers.

  11. I like the distinction you draw between purity and holiness. When I read the passages with the angels shouting “Holy, holy, holy!” in God’s presence, I’m pretty sure it’s something more than the fact that God is sinless that is inspiring their praise.

    I’m also reminded of Heb 10:14: “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” We’ve been made perfect (i.e. sinless) forever in God’s sight by the cross. That’s settled, and doesn’t need to be our focus anymore. Our lives are now about something far more important: becoming holy. That is, as you said, not just avoiding doing wrong, but doing good and loving all, being transformed into the likeness of God who is love.

  12. This is one of the best pieces on sin, holiness, and love that I’ve read. Another cup of Bubeck, sir……please sir…

    Thanks, JeffD. See, filling in for Mike wasn’t so hard, was it ??


  13. Ditto much of what’s been said.
    “Christian faith is not about sin management, it’s about managing to love.”
    I expect this quote will make it into one of my sermons before long …. with attribution, of course! Thank you, Craig.

  14. After writing that big long mess above, I just want to say that I thought this article was fabulous. I am going to re-read it a few times today.

    • Danielle, That “big long mess above” spoke volumes to me about what once was my reality… Stirred up old stuff, made me cringe as I thought about how much damage I did to my daughter, by trying to be perfect, when indeed I was so broken & sin filled, which still is the case… I could ramble on & on piggyback on “‘bruised flower’ metaphor ” Oh, the damage done… Time to listen to Neil Young and replace needle with religion…

  15. David Cornwell says:

    “The very purpose for which I was created—to love God of my own volition—is what I would deny God and rebel against. That’s sin.”

    As one who grew up thinking you can be “in grace” one moment and backslide and be lost the next, and who in college took a course entitled “The Doctrine and Literature of Holiness,” I want to thank you for these comments. I wish I’d understood this when I was 12 and when I was 20.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      As one who grew up thinking you can be “in grace” one moment and backslide and be lost the next…

      As in that small book “The Calvary Road” that was prominent during my time in-country. It’s crazy-making.

      It was a relief when my writing partner (the burned-out preacher) & I found one in the freebie bin of Dillsburg’s only used bookstore two years ago and he not only recognized it from the cover but pronounced it Bad Theology.

    • Jonathan Brumley says:

      In my life I have repeatedly rejected God, and with the help of His grace, returned to Him. Grace was there all along, constantly offered through this. But at times I have, for sure, freely rejected His freely offered grace, turning away from the One who loves me most of all.

      God in his wisdom gives me that freedom to turn away and reject Him. As awful as rejecting Him is, I know that because God is good, this freedom He gives us is good too. For me, without those experiences of distance and reconciliation I would not understand how much I need Him.

      Sin, without the cure of grace, will at some point kill us, destroying our soul. But that is no reason to lose hope. The good news is that He offers and keeps on offering us the medicine of grace. His hand is always there, reaching to us, with the message “I am still here. Turn around. Come. Follow. Abide in me.” And each time we take his hand He brings us back. And we grow closer to Him. And because of His love we hate sin more and more.

      In the final reckoning we can count on His promise to all who love Him, that He will have transformed us into new creatures, made sanctified and holy in His sight. No longer will we turn away. And joy of joys, we will abide with Him for ever and ever.

  16. Much of what Craig wrote reminded me of CS Lewis explaining why he didn’t want to let his mother know that he had a toothache: He knew she would treat the pain, but also that she would trot him off to the dentist in the morning to get to the root of the problem (bad pun mine only and intended!). Much the same way, we want God to fix our sins and smelliness but not adress the choices and underlying illness that cause the sinfull behavior.

    I can only add that the one thing we R.C.’s do WELL is too look at sin, suffering, pain, and all that nasty stuff without flinching or hiding in the way that many of our Evangelical brothers and sisters would like to. It does put a damper on the Happy-Clappy prosperity crowd, but of course can lead to other problems. Seem to me that we ALL have some part of Christ’s message correct and part of it wrong….and that finding the church that speaks the gospel in truth to the best of our human understanding is the best we can aspire to.

    • Craig Bubeck says:

      I believe that this is exactly why Christ has chosen to work through the diversity of the body, not just locally or within a denomination, but corporately. There are Baptist, Presbyterian, R.C., Anglican/Episcopalean, Methodist, Wesleyan, etc., hands/feet/eyes in the body that can best “speak the gospel in truth” to the best human understanding of given individuals with given personalities, strengths, and weaknesses. As long as Christ is indeed the head, and we are interconnected to his body, diversity it seems to me is a very good thing.

      Again, that’s why it’s entirely about love–in and of all places, the church. It’s telling that fighting and schism always come on the heals of legalism (which I believe to be by definition, all about–and arguably itself–sin). When church becomes about sin, and it’s measurement (law), it is bitterly and ironically in sin itself. All else must hinge on love, and it’s the only absolute standard.

      But maybe that’s another topic to address another day. 🙂

    • Yes Pattie – we tend to know the sin and suffering part – but when we know salvation could be on the line it tends to give us a different perspective (and then there’s that possible purgation piece to consider)….

  17. Bravo, Craig. Your article is loaded with great insight. Much of this resonates with a discussion some of my fellow followers of Jesus had during a men’s fellowship a couple weeks back regarding the call to “Be holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). I’ll probably share some of your thoughts with the group. May God bless you for writing this!

  18. Craig Bubeck says:

    A good friend for whose theology I have great regard, took some issue on points or emphases that I took. I thought some of my responses might clarify matters on my meaning further for folks who might have had similarl qualms.

    …Thank you so much for your prompt and thoughtful response. It means a lot to me that you should have taken the time to so thoughtfully read and engage. Clearly we have some nuanced disagreement; but we both know we are one in Christ and revere God’s Word and truth, even if we differ on how to interpret it on points. Please read my following response with the even and unemotional tone that I intend (as I received yours, by the way).

    First, I too believe in federal and seminal views of original sin; but I believe them to actually make much more sense when the premise is that sin is the antithesis to love. Focusing discussions about sin otherwise, as I understand it, is a distraction analogous to legalism—we prefer the lens of legal standard to that of relationship. That works fine to an extent with a more juvenile faith; but there needs to come a time in anyone’s faith wherein he or she understands wrong doing beyond the punitive . . . even beyond merely, “Because I said so.” Moral beings need to think morally. And morality (as I’ve tried to show) is ALL about love, or loves failure.

    Let me respond to each of your points in kind:

    1. I really do believe evangelicalism (with its leadership) pervasively tends to prefer legal metaphors over relationship metaphors. And I think especially in our culture today, aside from the theological and biblical inadequacy, that’s increasingly destructive (for church health, discipleship, and evangelism). But what I’ve tried to show is why this traditional approach is not only logically wrongheaded, but a biblically inconsistent emphasis. I do believe for both of those reasons it is predictably less and less effective in this post-modern age. I might go so far as to argue it is even thinking that is a “conforming to the way” of the modernist world.

    2. //Why is love assumed to be the grander theme of God’s character rather than holiness?// Because holiness is meaningless without love. In fact, I’ve tried to show how holiness is entirely about love (since sin is about independence from God and his love). Love is exactly what sets God apart, and it is ultimately only how we can be set apart. Freedom of sin is simply a byproduct of love. I don’t believe it is mere hyperbole or metaphor when God is described as himself BEING love. And I don’t believe Jesus was invoking hyperbole when he insisted all of the law in the entirety of Scriptures hinges on love (i.e., even the law itself is about love). Love for God and (like unto it) love for one’s neighbor is actually what holiness is all about, both for God and for his people.

    You are right to observe that love is the main staple in my writing, and my hope indeed is that my audience will accept it. I’ve tried to show that there is actually no viewing through any holiness lens unless one is viewing it through the love lens. (And yes, I do think my point in all fairness is exactly that evangelicalism tends to falsely want to make love and holiness a dichotomy.) But I do believe love is supreme, is defined by God, and godly holiness cannot be understood correctly in any other context except through the lens of love (God’s love in particular). It risks being filthy rags and clanging cymbals otherwise. Indeed, to presume to perceive what we would call God’s holiness without the lens of love would be . . . imperfect (it falls short of what is authentic, godly holiness).

    Also, I don’t believe this view to be particularly new. First, I think it’s as ancient as the Scriptures. But also there is a long tradition in church history—perhaps just as long a tradition as legalism. 😉

    3. As I think I showed in the article, how could one characterize what God the Son went through (a la his incarnation) as anything but enduring sin? As a matter of fact, it’s that exact syntax in Hebrews 12:2 that is argued to be the very means of our faith being “perfected.” God the Son did no less than endure the cross, what it is, and its consequences as sin, and no less than its scorn and shame. God perfects our faith (read “our love”) by enduring sin, in person.

    But God the Son’s enduring sin and sinners (recall how he was scorned by Pharisees for dining with such) while here on earth is hardly an exception. God has been enduring sin and sinners throughout human history. Even when concentrated manifestations of God’s wrath occur (Noah’s flood, the tower of Babel, the drowning of the Egyptian army, the various swallowing up of thousands by the earth or sundry plagues during the exodus), God has always been enduring for very long. That’s the sense of his being long suffering. And there’s no indication that God has some straw-on-the-camels-back threshold beyond which he won’t endure. How and why judgment rains down upon the just and unjust is clearly beyond human reason—for good reason it’s always been God’s call.

    No, I think it’s actually the focus upon God’s indignation that is the parochial. Little children need the spank on the hand or bottom in order to understand love’s restrictions. But there comes a time when Christians (and yes, I think evangelicalism) needs to grow up and understand what is really behind the legalities—love. My teenager, whom I once forbade as a two-year-old from ever going near the street without an adult, now drives those same streets without moral qualm. And he understands the reason behind that rule (and all of our rules). In fact, the very reason I would even get indignant and seem intolerant was (ironically to the child’s thinking, anyway) because I love him.

    My point is not merely that the church fails to love the unloved. Rather, my point is, if the church does not love God and neighbors, it fails to be Christian. As I indicated in the article, failure to love is not merely a symptom . . . it’s THE disease. I believe my arguments for love to not be merely valid, but per Jesus, foundational to anything one might call “truth.” If any babies are being thrown out with bathwater, it’s when Christians toss out love in the name of intolerance for sin.

    Now . . . I do believe there is a great deal of merit to God’s indignation toward sin. But that indignation can be nothing other than measured against love. What God is indignant about in any sin, ever, is how it manifests a lack of love toward God and neighbors. There is no other standard of purity that can matter . . . that can be other than (I’m sorry) the idolatry I alluded to at the beginning of the article; that is, we worship perfection rather than God.

    This is why I do believe indeed in the assertions I’ve made. It’s our (and I do mean “our”) failing as evangelicals. And frankly, our culture is finally starting to see it for what it has been for a very long time.

    Having said all of that, please know that I do agree it’s perfectly fine for us to agree to disagree on this matter. Many others whom I love in the body and in my family will undoubtedly disagree with me as well. I don’t think either side of emphasis should think the other heretical. Weaker and stronger brethren can love and disagree (oops, there’s that love thing again); we’ll just think in our own respective heads which is the weaker and which is the stronger on this. 🙂

    I’m grateful for your accountability and challenge. It means a lot to me that you would weigh my words so carefully.



    • I do not believe it is good to overlook the fact that God’s holiness has a lot to do with God as creator, and all other things as “the created”. That is foundational for understanding “Holy”.
      that said, however, the Word, Jesus, the Son of God, came to show us the true God. As human beings estranged from our maker,we can see through Jesus that God is one who stupes down to embrace us with love, compassion and deep longing for fellowship with the created beings he loves.
      Seeing the person and work of Jesus CHrist makes it very very difficult to claim that God’s otherness reigns supreme over his love and forgiveness. as it says, “mercy triumphs over judgment”.
      I would just like to say that not including this important aspect of GOd’s holiness invites people to dismiss your argument, which would be tragic.

    • Craig- great words. I find it helpful in these discussions to mention that the legal framework for defining sin comes from just such a “legal” root- the Law. The Law being a symbolic “yardstick” God gave Israel to be one of the indicators of her sin, an “icon” of his character.

      But it’s worth noting that even in the Old Testament, this Law was not the ultimate picture of the the character of God, and therefore obedience to it not the best description of holiness. That honor perhaps belonged to the Shema. Contained in the prayer is the true fiber of the Law, recited by the people of God daily, to which Jesus would turn when summing up the Law:. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.”

      So not only does the New Testament not give us holiness ultimately in terms of law, but the Old Testament doesn’t either.

      This seems to be the key to interpreting any sort of New Testament moral instruction, and I think might be what you’re getting at above. And indeed I would agree, it’s woefullly under-represented by us evangelicals. That Jesus came to love us (that’s salvation) and in doing so to provoke our love for him (that’s obedience). Our love for him no longer being resigned to “love” for an invisible, all-powerful being whose self-revelation was contained in epic stories like the Exodus, but in Humanity itself. A human being in communion with the Father, suffering, dying, and rising. No one can humanly love God because no one can see him(John 1:18). Only God can (the One who is “at the Father’s side”). Therefore, Jesus’ life(and death/resurrection) is the new “Law” to which we turn, because it’s humanly possible to love such a man, to be amazed by the Humanity we see there, to rejoice in his victory, and to want to serve him with “all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Unlike the written ordinances. Any talk we hear about sanctification must begin and end here, or we’re doomed.

      If you think about it, it’s very possible to behold a law code and find a rationale for disobeying it.(I fairly often do). But it’s impossible to go on hurting someone you love (I mean really love) when you study their face and see the hurt there, or spend the time to learn more about their story. Could this be why John the Apostle is the one who spent so many words on love as the reality behind holiness, behind sanctification- because he is the one who saw, literally SAW the face of his Lord as he was crucified? How could such a man NOT be moved to kindness, to compassion, having witnessed this atrocity, and then connected the dots between human rebellion, and the very pain he saw in Jesus’ face as he died?

      This is the point where I’m tempted to rant about the underlying gnosticism evident in the church, and a sorely de-humanized vision of Jesus that many of us have (and thus a “de-humanized” version of holiness and obedience), but I’ll save that for a different time!

  19. “When sin is described by Jesus, the apostles, and the Old Testament prophets in terms of missing the mark, it’s like describing a sickness by its symptom…”

    Excellent statement. I have seen this over and over: symptoms of sin being treated as the sin itself. Then, we just treat externals. Holiness then becomes about keeping up appearances. Those who have no troubles playing this game become immune to conviction and actually are capable of grave even diabolical sin. Their consciences are seared.

    Getting to the bottom of sin is not easy. People hide their true selves. Contrition may simply be a distraction from digging deeper. This is the sinful nature in all its glory – theology of glory, that is.

  20. The thought occurs to me that the priority of love over holiness is best observed within Trinitarian theology itself.

    Before the foundations of the world 13.8 billion/6,014 years ago, there was only God-as-Trinity, the three persons interacting in what can only be called Love. No holiness yardstick was available to compare God’s nature with any shortcomings of the created order because there as yet was no created order.

    Love wins because it’s had a long head start.

  21. This reminds me of Wayne Jacobsen’s writings (The Cross: punishment or Cure?, etc.) Any inspiration found there, Craig?

  22. Thanks for this rich and insightful post. My former pastor used to define sin as “saying no to God,” and he meant it not as a single action but as a demeanor, a noun as Craig puts it. I really appreciated that and learned a lot from him. I’m sorry he has moved to another state. For me, this post helped to fill out the theology of that statement.

    Most of evangelicalism still seems stuck in the sin management business. We need more voices like this.

  23. Rich post – thank you!

  24. Craig,

    What a wonderful and thoughtful post. Many of the themes you presented have been bouncing along in my cranium for a while, but you have expressed them more concisely and clearly than I could have done. So I will pay you the highest compliment I can: DANG, I WISH I HAD WRITTEN THAT!

  25. Well that was a fascinating read! I especially liked Craig’s distinction between sin management and love. And that “holiness” is an issue of what is there, not what isn’t there- it’s Love, not the absence of sin.

    The idea that all holiness (ALL of it!) is bound up in the the believer’s love for Jesus is what I’ve been hit with like a ton of bricks for the past couple years. It just blows my mind that there is no sin I can possibly commit that is not best described as failure to love Jesus– a failure to abide in the Gospel– and that there is therefore pretty much no reason to devise elaborate plans to prevent myself from “doing sin” (Could that also read “no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus?) There is only the beholding of Jesus, and the Spirit’s enlivening my spirit to love him. Glorious. Only a True Genius could have ever come up with this. The rest of us would simply have preferred to “manage” our way into hell.

  26. Aidan Clevinger says:

    THere are some really good points in this article, but I can’t help but feel that you’ve gone too far in a few places. For instance, you do seem (though it may just be my reading of it) to downplay God’s justice and wrath against evil of all kinds. Your defense of “sin” being primarily a noun is excellent, but in the context of this article it doesn’t seem like God is all that angry at sin.

    I also understand the desire to not be too narrow with regards the Atonement, but you’d be hard-pressed to ignore the “legalistic” aspects of Levitical and Pauline propitiation.

    Out of curiosity, were you arguing for free will in the last few paragraphs? I wasn’t sure, so I wanted to clarify.


    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      For instance, you do seem (though it may just be my reading of it) to downplay God’s justice and wrath against evil of all kinds.

      This might be deliberate, to counter all the Worm Theology and “GOD HATES SIN WITH SUCH A PERFECT HATRED!!!” tracts like what messed me up in my early days.

      My background is that of Utter Perfectionism and Excessive Scrupulosity. Perfection not only can become a runaway OCD neurosis with me, it has. During my time in the Evangelical Bubble, when such Perfectionism was preached (along with Ye Ende Is Nighye, courtesy of Hal Lindsay). Result: Despair.

      I was diagnosed as a Kid Genius when I entered kindergarten two years after Sputnik, and fast-tracked as a Kid Genius for the next 13 years. One of the expectations of a Kid Genius was Utter Perfection — to automatically know everything about everything without ever having to learn it and to master everything perfectly the first time you ever attempt it. Zero Defect. Zero Tolerance. And when I first came across Evangelical Christianity (courtesy of Jack Chick & Hal Lindsay — you can see where this is heading), all that did was ramp up the Perfectionism to Cosmic Levels. I understand very well why Christians such as Kirk Cameron have turned keeping their nose squeeky-clean to pass the Great White Throne/Rapture Litmus Tests to full-honk neuroses. When you’re predisposed to Perfectionism and “being saved” adds another layer of Perfectionism on top of that, you can only take Being Utterly Perfect for so long before you crack.

  27. Aidan Clevinger says:

    I’ll add that your definition of “holiness” as love for God and others is something I intend to steal. 😉