Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Noah, the Gospel and Personal Transformation

Coming from the Brethren/Evangelical tradition, I'm pretty used to the 'testimony meeting'. What happens is that, instead a sermon from a text of Scripture, one or two people give their personal stories telling of 'what God has done in their lives'.

Quite often, these testimonies involve descriptions of the most dramatic personal transformations. I've heard stories of drug addicts, murderers, drunkards, adulterers, gangsters all finding Christ and having their lives turned upside down by the gospel.

While these testimonies are encouraging, they can give rise to damaging misconceptions. The first and obvious misconception that can arise is that the gospel is about solving our own moral dilemmas. This is damaging because it overlooks the fact that the gospel is not about me but about Christ. It's not about what he's done in me, but about what he's done for me. The gospel is a story about someone else, not me.

When we take the focus from Christ, his penal-substitutionary atonement and perfect righteousness for me and replace it with my spiritual story of striking moral change, it creates and feeds instability in Christians.

When the focus of the Christian story boils down to our moral change, we lose courage. We lose courage to witness, because our lives are no different from those around us. We lose courage to approach God, because we haven't witnessed or attained a stage of personal transformation that pleases him. We lose courage to persevere in the faith, as life seems like such a long road ahead of personal transformation and I don't know if I can keep 'it' up. In the end we just want to get blind drunk and not think about running on this endless treadmill.

Another unhelpful result of the striking testimony is that it takes the spectacular and makes it normative. It makes an exception an every day occurrence so that radical pietism becomes the standard for Christian experience. Our young people listening get unsettled. I remember thinking "I've never experienced the deep conviction of sins. I've never had a radical change and conversion. I've never led my teddy bear to the Lord. I must not be a Christian."

Constantly listening to "I used to do X, now I'm saved I don't do X anymore" fosters unrealistic expectations. Will everyone who comes to Christ experience spiritual victory over sins? What categories do we have for testimonies that go, "Before I got saved I was an adulterer. I came to Christ and then cheated on my wife"?

Let me categorically state that we should be nurturing our young in Christ instead of trying to convert them. We must be careful to tell our kids that the goal of their growing up in a Christian family is to have a boring testimony. It's ok not to know the exact date when you came to Christ. All that matters is that you are resting in and receiving Christ by faith now, not whether you can pinpoint a date or detect some radical change in your life. Before and after pictures are unhelpful, as sometimes the after reveals we're in an even worse state now than ever!

The testimony of Noah is an interesting one. Maybe we should listen to his 'story'. Here we have a man clearly saved by grace. Genesis 6:8 tells us that "Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord" (TNIV). It was only because Noah found grace in God's eyes that he could be counted 'righteous' in the next verse.

We all know the story that he passes through the flood in the ark. According to the apostle Peter, this passage through the flood was Noah's baptism (1 Peter 3:20, 21). As a result, Noah was baptised into a new world. What a story! We would normally expect a testimony like this to go on and record Noah's personal victories, but not according to Moses! We read in Genesis 9:20, 21 that Noah proceeded to get drunk and lie butt-naked in his tent.

Noah, saved by grace, baptised into a new life and still screwing up! He reverted to the ways of the world that God had destroyed in the flood. Thankfully, Moses doesn't stop the story there. I don't think it's pressing the text too much to see the gospel in 9:23 where we read, "Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it accross their shoulders; then they walked in backwards and covered their father's nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father's nakedness." (TNIV)

There's a true gospel testimony. A saved by grace, baptised and righteous man gets blind drunk and naked. Yet his sons graciously cover his nakedness with a robe. True righteous, baptised saints continue like Noah, screwing up, losing their minds and getting naked. The good news is that God the Father doesn't see our nakedness. He continues to clothe us in his Son's robes despite our rebellious ways. God continues to "justify the ungodly" (Romans 4:5) not those who have an amazing story of personal victory.

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