“You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
I Peter 1:16 (ESV)
I was asked recently if a person can smoke and still be a Christian. My answer was rooted in Paul’s response to the Corinthians, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful to me, but I will not be enslaved by anything” (1 Cor 6:12). Yes, it is possible to be a Christian and smoke, but does it help your Christian walk? Are you a slave to smoking and not to Christ?
I grew up under the teaching of Ephesians 2, that we as Christians are being built together as the temple of the Lord, the dwelling place of God in the Spirit. Therefore, I ought to keep myself pure, so that the dwelling place of God will be clean.
Now there is nothing wrong with this teaching, but it does have its trappings:
Righteousness by Cleanliness
The unfortunate side of the teaching of Christian purity is that for many it becomes the heart of their religion. The quest for goodness and clean living replaces a faith in the grace of God and a dependence on the righteousness of Jesus Christ. “I am a good person. I don’t smoke, drink, or chew, and I don’t date girls who do.” This becomes the creed of the pure. We keep ourselves from the socially unacceptable sins, but give a wink and a nod to those little things that no one else knows about. At a person’s death, we may know nothing of their faith in God, but if they were a “good person,” then surely God owes them entrance into heaven.
The problem is, scripture teaches us that no one is righteous, no not one. All our righteousness acts are like filthy rags in the sight of God. Francis Chan, in his book, Crazy Love, says that “the literal interpretation of “filthy rags” in this verse is “menstrual garments” (think used tampons… and if you’re disgusted by the idea, you get Isaiah’s point).” Our goodness can never be good enough.
Another unfortunate aspect of the teaching of Christian purity is that too often it results in an air of self-righteousness. We’ve learned to do what is right, to control our desires, and if and when we do sin, we know to ask forgiveness and make things right. We’ve learned to deal with our sins, unlike those wretches who still struggle and can’t get their act together. In short, we become the “Elder Brother” of the story of the Prodigal Son. Rather than doing all we can to reach the lost, we complain about how lost the world around us has become. Rather than rejoicing when the lost are found, we worry about what it cost to find them and bring them home.
We forget that we were once the wretch, that we were once lost, and that we were once welcomed home. We must remember that it was the same grace that claimed us, the same cross that saved us, the same Spirit that gave us life. There is no difference in the fare.
So should we still teach our children to be pure, should we still strive for godliness in our lives? Absolutely. This is, I think, the purpose behind Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul says that “for freedom Christ has set us free…” and then teaches that we are not slaves to the law, and neither should we be slaves to sin. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” Instead, we are to bear one another’s burdens in a spirit of gentleness.
Simply because our sinfulness corrupts even our best efforts to live a life worthy of our calling does not mean that we should abandon all hope. Rather we should still press onward, but we should do so with an abundance of grace.
A spirit of graciousness reminds us that we all in need of the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ.
A spirit of graciousness reminds us that we all will stumble and need to be picked up now and again.
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch over yourself, let you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:1-2).
Grace and peace be with you!