#ChurchTrending: Candy Land Christianity

The classic board game Candy Land is so pointless it makes me angry. After the cards are shuffled, and the first player draws a card, the winner is already determined. There is absolutely zero strategy. Nothing you do ultimately matters. The fate of all players is set and will be revealed in thirty minutes or so. Unless you have a four year old who knows her colors and the basic mechanism of game-play like taking turns and moving pieces, you are not playing Candy Land.

We should hold our theology to at least as high of a standard as a board game. Yet, many churches inadvertently teach that what we do in the way of works does not ultimately matter in regards to our future life in the age to come. In order to emphasize that we cannot earn our salvation, we have divorced faith from works. We know there is some correlation between the two, but we still treat them as if they were two separate movements.

Evangelicals have always been worried about a works-based (earning) righteousness because we live in the long shadow of the Protestant Reformation. A side effect of the reformers’ sola fide (justification by faith alone) is a decrease in our sense of personal moral agency. The authors of Scripture do not share our angst.[1] When we treat works as separate from, or at odds with faith, we end up calling people Christians who are not disciples. We use clunky add-on distinctions like “lordship salvation” as if you could have one without the other. The passive in-house language of “accepting Jesus” puts conversion in the same realm as getting bad news from your doctor.[2] We receive Jesus. We take hold of Jesus. “Take, eat, this is my body.” We expect Christians to do good, but we also expect that it will happen automatically and with little to no effort on our part. We are game pieces being moved down the path of Candy Land Christianity.

How did we come to see good works and human effort as enemies of God’s grace when Scripture clearly expects the church to be a working people? Scripture testifies that we are real moral agents and allies with the Spirit. God has endowed our decisions and actions with real weight and purpose. What we do (or don’t do) matters!

Unfortunately, the (western, white, evangelical) church has had little vision or language to help Christians persevere in doing good. Evangelicals have been operating under the assumption that only disembodied souls will last for eternity, therefore the only thing that matters is soul conversion. Our truncated vision for God’s future limits our scope of things that matters today. If only conversions matter, why should Christians be trained in the arts or medicine or sciences (unless it will lead to conversions)? Why should Christians care about the earth? Why should Christians participate in government? Why should Christians work for justice? If what we do does not ultimately matter in the world to come, then life is sapped of all meaning and energy. We must learn how to value the good that we do in this life – even if it does not lead to someone’s conversion.

What we do in this life matters because it shapes the world to come. Isaiah 60 challenges our truncated vision of God’s future with our assumptions about what will be included in the world to come. Isaiah describes God’s City with camels coming in from Midian and Ephah, flocks from Kedar, rams from Nebaioth, ships from Tarshish, cypress, plane, and pine from Lebanon, and kings will bring in the wealth from the nations. Animals, cultural artifacts, art, technology, political rulers, and economic structures from all peoples of the earth are present in God’s future City. Including human cultures and creations in God’s City builds a bridge for us to imagine how human work in this world will be present in the world to come. If the ships of Tarshish will be brought in, then why not iPhones? If precious wood from Lebanon will make it, how much more will our righteous deeds also follow us – not just in shaping who is there but even in how that Future is administrated and organized. Paul says in 1 Cor. 6:3, “Do you not know that you will judge angels?”

Imagine the fruit of our good works paraded into that City and offered in worship to God. Imagine the joy and abundance because we persevered in praying for Christians in Northern Iraq, cared for the sick in Western Africa, and marched for justice in Ferguson. Isaiah says, “The least of them will be a clan, and the smallest one a mighty nation.” (Isa. 60:22) Isaiah 60 hints that life does not work like Candy Land. Quite the opposite! We live in a hyper-responsive system where our good works – as small as they may seem – can have deep and wide consequences in the future. Jesus said the Kingdom “is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (Mark 4:31-32). A rabbinic teaching says that our good deeds are seeds that plant the very trees of paradise. Each day we have the opportunity to work, planting small Kingdom seeds that will provide tasty fruit and refreshing shade in God’s City forever.  

Those trees will be there (or not be there) based upon what we do today and the next day and the day after.  It’s planting time.

For more:

When the Kings Come Marching In by Richard Mouw (on Isaiah 60)

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (esp. Chapters 13-15)

[1] If you are not convinced start here: Romans 2:6; 2 Cor. 9:8; Gal. 6:9; Eph. 2:10; Col. 1:10; 2 Thess. 1:11; 2:17; 1 Tim. 5:10; 2 Tim. 2:21; 3:17; Titus 1:16; Heb. 6:10; 13:21; 1 Pet. 1:17; 1 John 3:18; James 2:26; 3:13; Rev. 2-3 (“I know your works”); Rev. 14:13; 20:12; 22:12;

[2] The greek word, lambano, is sometimes translated as accept in English but is more often translated as receive or take.


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