The Uncle Bob problem

Recently, I had a Christian in passing conversation refer to a relative who was living in active sin. The person said to me that the sinning relative believed in Jesus so should be okay.

“As far as I understand it, if you take Jesus Christ as your savior, you will go to heaven,” this person said.

Most of this was an exercise in easing the Christian’s own anxieties about the fate of the relative, and it was literally a conversation in passing, so I did not respond very deeply or well in the moment.

But the brief exchange has stuck with me. I’m wrestling with how to best re-engage that person. And I find myself wondering how many other people have this view — despite all the preaching that gets done.

The fear that a person we love might be damned to hell is powerful. It is the question I hear Christians wrestle with most often — even more than they wrestle with their own salvation. And the pressure to not face the threat of hell for a child or spouse or parent is powerful. I would venture to say the most common response is to conclude that since we cannot contemplate the damnation of the person we love or a person who has already died, it must not be an option. Surely, God forgives. Surely, at the last second, Uncle Bob repented.

I understand these thoughts. And as a pastor, I am the first to say that I don’t know what the Lord has decided in the case of those who have already died. We all stand before the Lord on the day of resurrection. It is not for me to know or say what Jesus will judge in the case of others.

And yet, I worry about the Uncle Bob theology that spares us the heartache of contemplating hell for those we love. I worry because it does not just slide into antinomianism, it is antinomianism. It discounts what Jesus Christ and the apostles taught regarding holy living and the narrow way of salvation.

All these leads me to wonder how powerful spiritual denial is in our theology. To explain, let me compare it to medicine. We all know people who engage in willful denial about their own health problems. They can be in pain or suffering, but if you suggest they change their ways or go see a doctor, suddenly they tell you that it is not a big deal or that they are really okay. The problem with this, of course, is that cancer and heart disease don’t go away just because we don’t want them to be there.

In spiritual matters, we find it even easier to engage in denial because the consequences of our spiritual maladies are easily ignored. When sin brings trouble and strife to our life, we blame these present fruits of our sin on other factors — mean people, bad luck, coincidence, misunderstanding parents, etc. As for the future fruits of our sin, we deny they exist or talk ourselves into a theory that “God loves us” and “Love wins,” so we don’t have to worry about that.

This is all comforting, but, if the Bible is to be trusted at all, it is fatal.

I am at a loss when it comes to dealing with this fatal disease among our people. Jesus said, “Let those with ears, hear!” We seem to be pretty good at stuffing spiritual ear plugs into our heads.

But the problem seems real to me.

‘Take heed to your doctrine’

I’ve been reading John Fletcher’s Five Checks to Antinomianism this morning. At one time, the Five Checks were as dearly held by Methodist preachers as John Wesley’s sermons. The Checks speak to the problem, rampant today as then, of Christianity that amounts to little more than baptized heathenism. People go by the name Christian, but their lives show little or no change.

Fletcher’s concern was with Antinomianism, a teaching that since we are saved by faith without any works, we should set aside the moral laws of God and/or religious practices such as praying, Scripture study, or visiting the sick. Fletcher wrote that the Methodists and Anglican clergy ran astray when they stopped preaching repentance. When they did not preach to convict men and women of sin and exhort them to “take up their cross” daily and to live in conformity with the law, they nurtured shallow-rooted and false Christians who could well be described as whitewashed tombs.

His word to clergy was to “take heed to your doctrine.”

Let it be Scripturally evangelical: give not the children’s bread unto dogs; comfort not people that do not mourn. When you should give emetics do not administer cordials, and by that means strengthen the hands of the slothful and unprofitable servant. I repeat once more, warp not to Antinomianism, and in order to this, take heed, O! take heed to your doctrine.

These words stand out to me this day, in part, because we lectionary preachers will be spending the next two weeks with John the Baptist. Here was a preacher not afraid to step on the pious toes of his congregation. His boldness grew out of his conviction that people’s very lives were at stake. His words do not show up in many Christmas carols: repent, brood of vipers, unquenchable fire.

So now as Christmas approaches, how do we preach from his words? At no time of the year is the impulse to please people and churn up warm feelings stronger. People crave “cordials.” Do we give them what they crave? They will like us if we do. But is our task to please people?

Early Methodists were a mess, too

Do we sometimes look back at early Methodism with rose-colored glasses? Do we see cadres of spiritual green berets out knocking the devil on his hind parts at every turn? Do we wonder why our congregations can’t be as zealous as those early Methodist societies?

A passage in John Fletcher’s Five Checks to Antinomianism might set some of this in perspective. In defending John Wesley’s preaching and teaching about the necessity of good works and continual seeking after righteousness, Fletcher points out that the Methodist societies were prone to outbreaks of antinomianism — the belief that since Christians were justified and sanctified they no longer needed to worry about following the laws of God. Fletcher provides one specific example of what he writes was a problem that demanded Wesley’s constant attention:

In one of his societies, not many miles form my parish, a married man, who professed being in a state of justification and sanctification, growing wise above what is written, despised, his brethren as legalists, and his teachers as persons not clear in the Gospel. He instilled his principles into a serious young woman; and what was the consequence? Why they talked about “finished salvation in Christ,” and “the absurdity of perfection in the flesh,” till a perfect child was conceived and born; and, to save appearances, the mother swore it to a travelling man that cannot be heard of. Thus to avoid legality, the plunged into hypocrisy, fornication, adultery, perjury, and the depth of Ranterism.

I had to look up what Ranterism was. That was interesting, as was the realization that those storied ancestors of ours in the early Methodist societies could make just as much a mess of things as the people in our congregations.