I ran into an old friend today and asked what he’s doing for a job.
“I help people who are far from life look their best,” he said.
“Oh, so you sell makeup,” I replied.
“No, not really. But I do apply it.”
“You’re one of those beauty consultants at the mall?”
“No, I said I do it for people who are far from life.”
“You mean, you’re a mortician?”
“And your clients are dead?”
“No! That’s cold. I prefer to think of them as just being far from life.”
The conversation is ridiculous and fictional. Much less fictional is a theology that seems to guide a growing number of churches who tell us that they are reaching people far from God.
Or, more accurately and bluntly, people who are dead.
Before we go further, perhaps it’s worth explaining why semantics matter. When you have an action-oriented theology that ditches creeds for deeds, the best way to know what some of these innovative churches believe is by looking at what they do and say. The new church movement (emergent, seeker-sensitive, purpose-driven, etc.) is quite deliberate and generally successful in trying to change the speech patterns of its adherents. Speech influences and reveals thinking, so I think it’s important to flag and challenge the thinking and the doctrines (creeds, if you will) that are behind the words being used in so many modern churches. Important words mean important things.
Saying that someone is far from God is about as useful as describing a corpse as being far from life; it’s just an attempt obscure the awful reality that the corpse is dead.
What does God think about our “far from life” status?
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins (Colossians 2:13)
There’s nothing a dead man can do to get closer to life. It’s a fundamental element of our faith that Christ alone saves us and that there is nothing we can do to initiate or reject it. If Christ decides not to save us, nothing we can do can change his mind. If Christ does mercifully decide to save us, there’s nothing we can do to resist him.
Describing sinners as being far from God is a fiction that, while trying to preserve the dignity of the sinner, ignores the absolute wretched position that he finds himself in. It’s a fiction that incubates thinking that if we could only change the way the unsaved think about Jesus, Christians or the church, that they would start to close the distance between themselves and a God who wishes they’d come closer.
Mark 12:34 does tell of a particular Pharisee whom Jesus describes as being “not far from the kingdom of God.” It’s a curious account because we don’t know whether the man did eventually enter the kingdom, though I suspect that Jesus was telling him that by God’s grace he was being drawn. The Pharisee had affirmed Jesus and demonstrated a clear understanding of Scripture, which is something that’s impossible to do without God’s help. One thing we do know about the Pharisee, he was not seeking God before his encounter with Jesus; he came to challenge and test Jesus with the intent of tripping him up. Although he sought God with evil intent, it appears that God demonstrated his mercy and gave the man a new heart. By his actions and intent, the Pharisee was living and running far from God, but by Jesus’ love and power he was brought close to God.
After this, no one dared asked Jesus any more questions. Why not? A hostile sinner asked Jesus a question and it probably appeared to all observers that he had been converted. When Jesus speaks to you, you change.
Look at Romans 3.
There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.
All have turned away, they have together become worthless.
The most moral sinner is just as far from God as the most murderous tyrant. Just as the distance between life and death for a dead man is infinite, so the distance between my unregenerate self and a holy and just God is infinite and terrifying. I am either so far from God that distance is irrelevant, or I am an integral and valued part of his body by virtue of his saving grace.
Once a part of his body, although I can be far from sanctified maturity, I can never be far from God.
This is the wonderful miracle, security and beauty of grace.