Daniel ThimellDaniel Thimell is Associate Professor of Theological-Historical Studies at Oral Roberts University. Dr. Thimell earned his Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen in 1993.

Christianity is not primarily about right behavior, but about relying on Christ’s completed work.

Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: Why do most Christians seem to think that Christianity is primarily about right behavior?

DT: There are probably a number of reasons. One is that a lot of the preaching they’re exposed to assumes that. A lot of preaching is works religion. It’s advice on how to be a better parent, how to be a better father, how to be a more effective Christian, how to pray better. All these how-to sermons leave one to think that Christian life is mostly about performance.

God does care about the life we live. He does care about the kind of parenting that we engage in and these things. But when we put the focus on the how, we make it look like Christianity is a matter of performance. We should be focusing on who. We should be focusing on who is Christ? What has he done for us? How has he included us in his life? Then we should see that as a basis for the Christian life.

Another reason that most Christians are focusing on behavior is that we live in a performance-based society. Raises are based on performance. Relationships are based on performance. We’re used to that. It’s in the air we breathe, it’s in the water we drink. It’s natural for us to interpret the ways of God based on the ways of humanity.

JMF: There’s a difference between salvation, which is by grace, and behavior, while it’s important, is not what our salvation is based on.

DT: Right. The life we live is a response to grace—it’s not a condition of grace. It’s not, “If I live well enough, then God will be nice to me, he’ll be good to me, great things will happen to me.” But rather, because God in Christ has done it all and continues to present me acceptable to the Father through what he has done for me, that’s the basis for my Christian life.

The behavior of the Christian life, the obedience that we’re called to engage in, in the Christian life, can only be carried out through God’s grace — only through the presence of Christ in my life can I live the life God calls me to live. It’s appropriate to preach on living the Christian life so long as we’re Christ-centered. Paul Scherer, the great Lutheran preacher, a generation ago told divinity students at Yale, “When you’re preaching, wherever you are in your text, make it across country, as fast as ever you can, to Christ.” I think we need more Christ-centered preaching.

If Christ is the Alpha and Omega, if he is the basis for our life in God, then why do we try to base it anywhere else in our preaching? If we offer all kinds of advice on how to live, and fail to ground it in Christ, we’re preaching works religion.

JMF: What do we mean, by grounding it in Christ? What most Christians tend to get from the kind of preaching you’re talking about is: “Christ is the role model, I need to measure up to the way Christ is”—so that is centered in Christ from that perspective. “How do we live like Christ did in order to be accepted by God?”

DT: That’s where the model is centered in Christ but not really the way of living, the secret of living the Christian life. Then it becomes “he did his part, I do my part.”

JMF: Right.

DT: In the Bible, Christ is not simply an example. He is an example; he has left an example that we should follow in his steps, Peter writes [1 Peter 2:21]. But Christ is also the basis for our life. He’s also the one through whom I can live the Christian life. Christ is the author and the finisher of our faith. He’s the one who begins our Christian life and he’s the one who completes it. Paul says, “I’m crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I go on living in the flesh and my humanity, I live by the faith of the Son of God” [Galatians 2:20].

Christ is that living reality in my life. It’s not like he’s standing far off with his arms crossed, waiting to see if we’re good enough for the next goodie to fall from heaven, but rather, he’s my constant companion — the source of my life, the source of all the love I need, the source of the faith I need, the kindness I need, the faithfulness I need, the persistence I need.

JMF: We tend to think that if I am being faithful and I am being patient, then Christ is living in me. But if I’m not being that way, if I’m not measuring up to the standards of God, then Christ isn’t living in me. So unless I’m measuring up, Christ isn’t in me, and I should measure up better, in order for Christ to be living in me. What’s wrong with that?

DT: The Christian life is not an on-again, off-again kind of thing like that. The Bible describes the Christian life as entering into eternal life — that he who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. We pass from death into life when we come to Christ. Eternal life is, by definition, one that is unbroken, that goes on forever.

God says, “There’s nothing that can cause you to fall out of my wagon. You’re mine. I’m committed to you, and the life I’ve given to you is for keeps. You’re always going to be my boy, you’re always going to be my daughter, and nothing can change that.” The life we live is not an anxious life. It’s not a nervous life or a fearful life. It should be a joyful life because God in Christ has done it all, and he’s going to get me safely there, and whether I’m up or I’m down, God will continue to live in me.

In the traditional English wedding ceremony, marriage is described as a covenant, not a contract. A contract would be, “If you perform well enough, then I’ll perform well enough. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Many people, even though they go through the marriage ceremony and promise undying love, in fact, see it as a contract. When the other person pleases them less than someone else, when the other person lets them down or they get sick or become disabled, they say, “I didn’t love them anymore. I needed to find someone else to love.”

But in the marriage ceremony, we’re promising to love the person for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. It’s an unconditional promise. How can we make that kind of unconditional promise to a fallible person, a weak person, a frail person?

How can we as weak, frail persons make that kind of promise? The apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 when he says, “Love one another as Christ loved the church, who loved her and gave himself for her.” It’s the sacrificial love of Christ that is the basis for our life together in marriage. It’s through Christ that I can forgive when my spouse says something hurtful or does something that’s not right. I can be forgiving because God in Christ is forgiving through me. This model of a marriage is the same way that God treats us in all of life. He treats us unconditionally. He loves us for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

Most people know the great love chapter — 1 Corinthians 13. It says, “Love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” We often include it in the marriage ceremony. One time I read that passage in a wedding ceremony, and one of the groomsmen came up to me afterwards and said, “That was a really cool poem, where did you get it?” I said, “It was from the Bible, and it’s describing the love that God intends to be the basis for marriage.”

Having made these wonderful statements about love, we need to ask ourselves, “What does the Bible say about God?” The Bible says, “God is love.” He’s the only source of love. Since God is love, I can re-read 1 Cor­inthians 13 and say, “God hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. God’s love never ends.” That’s the basis for the Christian life — an enduring love that persists despite my weakness, my failings. Sometimes I don’t feel particularly pious, sometimes I don’t feel as devoted to God, sometimes I do things that let him down, that I’m embarrassed about, but God continues to persist in his forgiving love, and continues to say, “You’re mine, I married you forever, this is for keeps.”

JMF: So the gospel is about a relationship — the good news is who God has made you to be in Christ, not good news about a potential bonus if you meet certain requirements.

DT: Right. Christ completed that work. He said from the cross, “It is finished.” We are offered a relationship based on what Christ has already done. James Torrance used to say, “Faith is the dawning awareness that God in Christ has done it all. He’s completed it. He’s lived our life and died our death and risen in triumph, and I was there in him when he lived and died and rose again.” It’s a completed gift. He offers me a relationship based on his completed work. My life in God is a relationship.

There’s a typical pattern in the letters of Paul. Paul moves always from grace in Christ to responsibilities in Christ. The first half of his letters talk about the wonderful things that God has done in Christ. So you have in Ephesians, “We’re predestined in Christ, we’re seated in the heavenlies with Christ, God has given us every spiritual blessing in Christ.” It’s already ours in Christ. No one can ever take that inheritance from us.

Then he moves on to saying, “Husbands, love your wives. Bosses, watch out for your workers, take care of your workers.” There are responsibilities that flow from that, but I carry those out through my life in Christ — not in order to get it, but because I have it.

JMF: He’s reminding us, “Here’s who you are in Christ — because you are a child of God, because you are in Christ — therefore act like it.” He never says, “Act this way and then God will do such and such for you.” It’s always, “Here’s who you are, so act like that, behave like that.”

DT: Right.

JMF: The behavior doesn’t change or affect who you already are in Christ by what Christ has already done.

DT: Right. A good loving parent may have a child who disappoints her and at times does things that she would not want her to do, which bring great pain to her heart, but she says, “I still love him. He’s still my son.” God is like that, only far more so. God is the source of true unconditional love that never ends. Sometimes a parent will finally, after repeated dis­appointments, give up and throw in the towel. But God never does. The Bible says, “Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Who is he that condemns? Christ has already done it all” [Romans 8].

JMF: The parable of the prodigal son is an excellent illustration of that. Within the story, the son has done…you can hardly think of worse things in that culture to do. He’s repudiated his father’s fatherhood…

DT: That’s right – he said, “I can’t wait till you die, give me the money now.” That’s pretty crass.

JMF: And he’s blown the inheritance… he’s wasted everything.

DT: Right. On terrible living.

JMF: But the father never says, “You’re not my son anymore.” Even though the kid, when he prepares his little speech, he in effect is saying, “I know I’m not your son anymore. I just want to be one of the servants so I can get something to eat.” He’s still selfishly looking out for an angle. He’s not even repentant in that sense — he’s looking for an angle. “Father, I have sinned, but…” His take on that is, “Just let me be one of the servants so I can get a meal.” The father doesn’t even listen to his speech.

DT: Right. He says, “It’s not about performance. It’s not about what you can do, because you can’t do it.”

JMF: It’s about who you are, because that’s who you are.

DT: “This my son was lost and now he’s found.” “This my son.” He’s always been my son, you’re still my son, we’re going to throw a party because it never was about your worthiness or your performance.

We can picture him…he’s off in the far country breaking his father’s heart every day by the way he’s living. We can picture the father every day going out on the porch and scanning the horizon, seeing if that’s the day his boy is coming home, because he’s never stopped loving him, never stopped having a place for him in his heart.

JMF: Yet, all of us can identify with the older brother who says, “This is the most unfair dumb thing in the world.”

DT: Right.

JMF: And we can hardly identify with the younger son.

DT: That’s because we’re far more aware of the sins and failings of those around us, than we are of our own.

JMF: Yeah.

DT: We’re experts in the faults of those around us.

JMF: If we are experts in our own, we’re so depressed we can’t believe that something like that could be true.

DT: Right. In both cases, whether we’re looking at others or looking at ourselves, we should be looking at Christ. That’s the problem.

JMF: Which is why Christ told the parable.

DT: Exactly. Jesus said one day,

Two people went to the temple to pray, and the one person prayed, “Lord I’m really cool. I thank you that I’m not like this wretched sinner over here. You know, I’ve always kept the rules.” And the other man said, “Lord, I’m a sinner. I have blown it. I have done terrible things, and Lord be merciful to me, a sinner. I have nothing to offer you, I just ask you for mercy.” [Luke 18]

Jesus interpreted that story. He said that the second man, not the first, went home right with God. It wasn’t performance. It was receiving mercy.

JMF: Yeah. Robert Capon talks about that in his book about parables. He says the problem is that we love that parable and we say that’s beautiful, I like that. But we don’t want the forgiven admitted sinner to come back the following week with the same prayer. We want him to come back with the other prayer that now says, “I’ve been doing all the right things.”

DT: Yep. But we never graduate beyond our need for grace. We never stop needing God’s mercy. We live our lives by his mercy and by his grace, by the life of Christ in us.

JMF: We feel guilty doing that. Because, after all, we wouldn’t forgive someone, and we don’t forgive ourselves, for doing the same thing over and over.

DT: Right. There’s a limit. We’ve had it, you know? That’s the way we treat other people. We might be very understanding and forgiving for many, many times, but there comes a point where that line is crossed, and we give up. But when Jesus compares humans and God, he’d say, “If you, being human, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven…” God’s love is far greater, it’s much more than ours. So much more, that it’s unconditional. The Bible says the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance. He never takes them back.

JMF: Aren’t we afraid to rest in that? We’ve sinned, we know it, we’re full of guilt, shame, doubt, frustration, and anxiety, and we are afraid to say, “This is already taken care of. I don’t need to dwell on this and worry about it… I need to move on and trust in and rest in the grace and forgiveness of God and in my relationship with him, which is separate from the consequences of what I might have done as far as having to ‘reap what I have sown’ in the sense of sin hurts.”

DT: There are consequences, and God doesn’t always protect us from the consequences of our actions. If we drive drunk, we may cause an accident, and that accident won’t be reversed the minute that we’re sorry. There are still those consequences, but God has forgiven us.

JMF: We have to learn that salvation is different from the natural consequences of our sins. We’re going to experience those, but we don’t need to fear that God has dumped us, given up on us, forsaken us, and that our salvation is in jeopardy because of the sin. That’s where we mix the two…

DT: I think we’re always projecting our human experience onto God and thinking that he is like people we know. And just as other people finally lose their temper and lose their patience…

JMF: And especially me.

DT: Right, especially myself. God must be like that. We’ve also learned that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Beware of the Bernie Madoffs who promise you an enormous return on your money. So if somebody comes along and says, “God will love you no matter what. God’s mercy is there for you — no matter what you have done or do, it is still there for you,” we say, “Wait a minute. You’re feeding me a lie. It sounds astonishing, it’s scandalous.”

Paul described the gospel as a scandal, a stumbling block. It was a scandal to both Jews and Greeks for different reasons. The gospel surprises us, collides with our common-sense understanding of things. Often, we’re far more aware of our failings than we are of the goodness of God, far more aware of our sins than we are of his mercy. So we need to look away from ourselves to Jesus.

It’s remarkable, when you look at the time when Christ was arrested and Judas and Peter both, in essence, committed the same sin — they both betrayed Jesus within hours of each other. One of them despaired and took his own life and the other, Peter, returned to the Lord and received his mercy. There was no basis for Peter to be forgiven — it was blatant what he did. He didn’t deserve another chance, he even swore, saying, “I’ve never met him, I’ve never known that man,” when he was asked “surely he was with that Galilean.” But Jesus loved him. He never gave up on Peter. He never gives up on you or me.

When bad things happen

JMF: When something bad happens, we tend to think, “This is evidence that God is punishing me for my failure to measure up. He’s against me and turned his face from me, and what hope do I have, because obviously I’m under his curse?” Sometimes that’s what someone at church tells you — there is no causeless curse, you know.

DT: God’s getting you. He’s getting even with you here.

JMF: Right.

DT: Sometimes we have that kind of a God, who’s a mean ogre with a big stick or something. It’s because we’re so focused on our own sin that we fail to look at God through the eyes of Christ. We fail to look at him through Christ. We substitute another god for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

JMF: So what do we do with the bad things that happen to us? How do we cope with that in terms of who we are in Christ?

DT: That’s a crucial question, because as Jesus said, “In this world you have tribulation.” Sometimes we’ve been so interested to get people to accept Christianity or to come to Christ that we make promises that the gospel does not promise. “Come to Jesus and all your problems will be solved.” “Come to Jesus and you’ll never have a difficulty. He’ll take care of everything. You’ll never have a problem, never have an adversity, never have a sickness.”

But this is not true. Paul, the greatest missionary this world has ever seen, the author of the most books of the New Testament, said that he had a terrible experience, a painful experience — there was this jagged thorn in his flesh and he kept praying to God, “Take it away.” God said, “No, my grace is sufficient for you, for my grace is made perfect in weakness.” Sometimes God says that to us. He says, “yes, you’ve experienced broken­ness, you’re experiencing a terrible thing that’s happening to you in your life and you are asking, ‘God, just take it away from me.’” But God says, “That’s not my plan.”

In my own life, my late wife, Adrienne, was battling cancer. She was a godly woman, a humble Christ-centered person. When we found out she had cancer, we did everything we could. We took her to the doctors, we tried medical treatment, but there was no treatment for her cancer. We prayed, knowing that God had healed many people and that there are verses in Scripture urging us to pray to God if we’re sick and ask for healing. So we prayed over and over again for healing.

In the course of my wife’s illness, she had to have surgery seeking to remove that cancer, and they removed one of her eyes. The hope was that that would contain the cancer, but it didn’t. Later, it was clear to the doctors that there was no cure for her.

One day when I was praying, asking for healing, I didn’t hear an audible voice, but I heard an inner voice that I believed was the Lord speaking to me saying, “Dan, you’ve asked for healing over and over again for her.” He says, “But you’ve never asked what is my purpose in all of this. I want you to know, I could heal this cancer now, but she would continue to be sightless in one eye, she would continue to be less than whole in this life. Or I could heal her completely. And I’m going to heal her completely.”

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But God has a mercy that sometimes is a severe mercy. Sometimes it involves taking us through pain, through difficult experiences. God can deepen our love for him, deepen our compassion for others, and deepen our understanding of life when we walk through these painful experiences with Jesus, who continues to have nail-scarred hands.

The humanity of Jesus not only means that I’m included in Christ’s life now, and that he represents me to the Father and all those good things. It also means he continues to bear our scarred humanity. Jesus, who appears to the disciples after he rose again, still had scars in his hands. My Jesus has scars. He tells Thomas, who doubted that Jesus had really risen again, “Behold the nail prints in my hands.” In other words, you’ll know me by my scars.

Jesus understands. God understands our pain. He understands our difficulties. He knows about our scars. He walks through those scarring episodes of life with us, brings us comfort, brings us mercy, but doesn’t always give us that detour. God doesn’t guarantee us an untroubled passage from here to heaven, only a safe arrival.

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Last modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2021, 12:38 PM