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“A good sermon should skate right up to the edge of heresy. Make your point to the extreme. You’ll have other sermons to pull in the other direction. Dare to go out on the thin ice. You’ll hear some cracks and groans. Just don’t fall through.”
So I was once told by an older colleague. Perhaps he was being a little provocative. But all these years later, I still remember it.
His comments motivated me to consider “heresies I have loved”—beliefs and doctrines that are just beyond the pale. Nonetheless, they are attractive. They make sense in their own way. They are very close to the Gospel. Maybe that’s what makes them winsome. Maybe that’s what makes them dangerous. So, from time to time here on The Twelve, I’m going to try to develop my own little series—Heresies I Have Loved. I welcome your ideas and suggestions.
I was a frightened seminary student, just a week or two into school. It was our very first small-group discussion session, and another student kept dropping the word “antinomian.” I had no idea what he was talking about. He and the doctoral student who led the discussion were going on and on.
Most of the time I looked down at the floor, avoiding any eye contact, just hoping I would not be called on. Occasionally I would nod knowingly, implying, “Yes, of course.” I escaped that day without significant humiliation, went home and looked up “antinomian”
This is what I found: “a belief that Christians are freed from biblical and moral laws because salvation is solely by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.” Apparently, the term was coined by Martin Luther, who was himself accused of being antinomian on occasion. There is a long and complex history within the church of debates surrounding antinomianism. But that’s not where I’m going today.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is about grace and mercy and freedom and release. It is not about being good, tallying brownie points of morality, or self-improvement. God’s love for us in Jesus Christ is free. No-strings attached. No asterisks with fine print. I believe it was Phil Yancey who said, “There is nothing you can do that will make God love more or love you less.”
An LGBTQ Christian friend boycotts Chick-fil-A because of their anti-gay policies and stances. Good for him. Admirable. However, about once a year, he eats there. This is somewhat because he actually likes the food—a lot. But it also reminds him of his freedom in Christ. It puts a ding in his sense of moral accomplishment. It keeps him from becoming inflexible and prim.
I like my friend’s practice, especially if he is able to imagine that everyone else in the restaurant that day is doing the exact same thing—their annual moral exemption. That way he isn’t judgy or resentful about the others enjoying their chicken sandwiches. We might all do well to think about our personal moral scruples and practices. Then, consider violating them intentionally from time to time in celebration of our Christian freedom and as an antidote to moral pride.
Jesus was always wrangling with the strict, the law-abiding, the morally fastidious. The irony, of course, is that he is now viewed as the founder of a religion for the obsessively moral. He has given rise to so many who aspire to be elder sons and so few prodigals.
In worship a year or so ago, I heard the story of a woman anointing Jesus. In his conversation with Peter afterwards, Jesus says, “The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Those words staggered me. I do not want to love little. I want to love much. The way to loving much apparently goes though being forgiven much. That doesn’t mean I go out of my way to sin, thereby needing forgiveness. Nor do I cheekily describe myself as “depraved” and go around self-flagellating. But I do want to love much. And I am more loving and gracious and accepting when I see myself as one who is forgiven much.
In saying I wish I was antinomian, I am not saying I wish I was a libertine—a person who flouts morality and responsibility. I have no desire to be to be violent or hateful, to cheat on my wife or my taxes, or even to break traffic laws (most of the time). Generally, I am a pretty boring, compliant, law-abiding person. I’ve even blogged here on The Twelve about my love of the law. Decades ago, when Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young sang “rules and regulations, who needs them?” I thought, “Actually, I do.”
Why, when we hear “All things are permissible for me,” do so many of us respond—instantaneously and reflexively—“Yes, but not all things are beneficial.”
Similarly, when we hear “For freedom Christ has set you free” we pounce with “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.”
We are more certain about the second halves of Paul’s statements than we are the first. This immediate need to constrain the wild, vast openness of grace deadens its power. Our frantic need to blunt the Gospel often makes me wonder if we really trust in grace. Is it wise to tell middle schoolers that “all things are permissible for me”? Do we dare share it with adults?
No doubt there are many, many things that are not beneficial. Still, that is not the Gospel. There will always be room for Christian ethics—to explore the better option, the way of justice, the life of mercy. We can get to morality eventually, but never as the gatekeeper to Jesus.
Increasingly I have no time for conversations that begin, “Can a person do X and still be a Christian?” “Are Christians allowed to do…?” “Should Christians…” This is the life-killing, joy-taking, hair-splitting way of morality. And we Christians have a hard time discussing morality without it becoming hyper-morality, rigid morality, morality that usurps Jesus.
Antinomianism is something we should keep close at hand—to refresh the wildness of grace, and dilute our drive for purity. It may be a heresy, but there is a lot of Gospel here.
And I’m okay with being accused of antinomianism every now and then.