by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 1-8, 1978 pp. 95-96. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Maybe the only comfort we the comfortable can legitimately embrace lies in the realization that God cannot be forever mocked — that his grace will not forever endure ridicule, that the mockery of easy American Christianity will not endure forever.
And why not do evil that good may come? [Rom. 3:8].
The Apostle Paul was not asking that old and naïve question, “Does the end justify the means?” He was too much a realist for that. He was well aware that if the end doesn’t justify the means, nothing could. Life does not offer us the luxury of morally balanced ends and means. There is a radical ambiguity in all our deeds. We not only cannot control the effects of our actions (we too often “do evil” when we intend to do good), but we can’t even be clear as to our intentions. Frequently our most charitable acts simply mask our pride. Generosity can be a subtle, self-deceiving way of advertising our wealth and power.
The more we probe our real motives, the more uncertain we become. Paul is not only aware of these things; he is perhaps more responsible than any other scriptural writer for teaching us these things; i.e.; what it means to be a sinner.
Paul would not long ponder the senseless question, “Does the end justify the means?” — for it leaves open the possibility that we can act in a morally blameless way. For Paul, such an assumption does not even compute. He had long since given up the possibility of blamelessness: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
However, a drastic recognition of sin raises other questions. And now we meet Paul’s question: If we are all involved in the sin of humankind and even saints are sinners too, if godly perfection does indeed totally escape us, and if our only hope lies in the sheer unmerited grace of God, then isn’t the whole Christian view of human existence reducible to some pathetic farce?
Every corner boy will congratulate himself: “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.” Every crook will argue: “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged” [from Herod’s speech in W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being].
Paul has been accused, both in his time and our own, of teaching such antinomianism. This charge ought not to concern us; Paul can defend himself. But can we defend ourselves? Surely it is obvious that we urbane, well-adapted, modern Christians can be charged with living in a self-constructed world that has been so “admirably arranged.” We are captivated by the world. Yet we are humble enough to acknowledge that we are ultimately helpless. God loves those humbled sinners who know that they cannot change and thus need not try to. Therefore, we can have it all — this world and, if we feel the need of any cosmic kicks, the next world as well. Let the legalists strive; perfection is a mirage. We have been set free from the law of sin and death.
It strikes me that Paul’s doctrine is at the same time the most helpful and the most dangerous of all assessments of the human condition. We are so slothful and perverse that even an honest recognition of our sin can be the occasion of our gravest sin of all: trying to make a fool out of God.
Lent is as good a time as any to contemplate how close we stand to the abyss. Surely it ought not to be a season for taking easy comfort. Maybe the only comfort we the comfortable can legitimately embrace lies in the realization that God cannot be forever mocked — that his grace will not forever endure ridicule, that the mockery of easy American Christianity will not endure forever. Perhaps our deliverance will come when we can hear those very different words of Paul, “God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that will he reap” (Gal. 6:7), and find in them incredibly good news.