I remember having a book as a kid with Jesus and the Devil playing chess in the background as a man sat alone on a bench in the foreground contemplating his soul. As I recall the picture was meant to communicate the “valley of decision” that the man on the bench was experiencing. I find myself in those valleys quite often these days. Perhaps it is 2020 fatigue? I know that lots of friends and family members are experiencing similar feelings. But upon reflection I believe that the picture I remember from my childhood communicated a false equivalency between Jesus and Satan, as did many images in the eighties and nineties coming out of Christian pop culture. I don’t think there is an ongoing contest for my soul between Jesus and Satan. My Christian faith is stronger than that on most days. And even on the weaker days, I’m still convinced that Christ has full ownership and authority over my mind, heart, and soul. If there is a contest, it isn’t between Christ and the Devil, it is between my faith and my experiences. Some days I don’t feel like a Christian. Some days I embellish my negativity and destructive behaviors with abandon. Does this make me less than a Christian? And of course, I’m not the first Christian to contemplate this.
In the nineteenth century, there was an entire religious movement within Christianity that pursued answers to these particular questions. It was known as the Holiness movement and was a precursor to twentieth century Pentecostalism. Emerging from the Wesleyan Methodist movement, the idea was that through a series of “blessings” subsequent to Christian conversion that one could achieve varying levels of spiritual maturity with some even advocating for “sinless perfection” that was obtained through either through extreme acts of piety and consecration or by merely engaging the same kind of faith required for salvation. Where one landed on the spectrum of what was actually achievable via human effort differentiated those that would eventually become Pentecostals (who fell on the works side of the spectrum) verses those who would land in more traditional evangelical or fundamentalist camps.
One of these lesser known revivalist who just happened to have a famous name was the New England evangelist John Quincy Adams. In response to those who advocated for sinless perfection, Adams retort was profound, “In contrast to being perfectly sinless, he said that he was ‘perfect in ignorance, in weakness, in folly and, aside from Christ, I am perfect in vileness and sin! This is the only perfection I claim! But for my perfect ignorance, Christ has perfect knowledge -for my perfect weakness, He has perfect strength -for my perfect folly, He has perfect wisdom -for my perfect vileness and sin, He has perfect righteousness and sanctification. By faith I appropriate Him. And taking Him, I take all.” It occurred to me as I was reading this, that the very weaknesses that I shun through my pietistic pursuits are the very deficiencies that serve as the exclusive qualifications for my salvation. If I’m good enough then I have no need to be saved or even loved. Perfection is its own reward and doesn’t require anything by definition. Because we are less than perfect, we need to be loved. Loved by the only entity in the universe that can do so without condition -God.
If God was involved in some sort of gambit for my eternity, this would mean that by definition He has to gamble, to engage in a degree of risk in order to gain an advantage. But how can God lose? If God can’t lose then there isn’t any real risk. This does present some interesting thoughts that I’ll perhaps pursue in subsequent musings, but for now, what it communicates to me is that most of my religious apprehension wasn’t given to me by any actual understanding of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent being, but rather was given to me by religious movements that had something to gain from my compliance. The only gambit engaged was one being played by systems constructed via insecurity that saw me as a pawn -a means to some end, rather than the end itself. The grace of God needs no gimmicky to accomplish its goals.
As Robert Capon puts it, “Grace works without requiring anything on our part. It’s not expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free. It refuses to be controlled by our innate sense of fairness, reciprocity, and evenhandedness. It defies logic. It has nothing to do with earning, merit, or deservedness. It is opposed to what is owed. It doesn’t expect a return on investments. It is a liberating contradiction between what we deserve and what we get. Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an un-obligated giver.”
It is easy to default to keeping score and keeping books on ourselves and others. I think this mindset imposed on us by religion and cults impedes our ability to enter into real and meaningful relationships, because we are always tempted to evaluate ourselves and others based on old models of spiritual hierarchy. When it fact what we did under previous systems involved trading our social, mental, and emotional growth and wellbeing in exchange for ‘spiritual elitism.’ It was a devil’s bargain that never paid off, instead simply resulting in spiritual pride and truncating our emotional, mental, and social growth.
The old system gave us solace in thinking ourselves better spiritually but in actuality alienating us from any meaningful relationships or experiences. In the same way that many live vicariously through celebrity culture, we lived vicariously through pentecostal culture. But in the end we weren’t living at all, just experiencing a simulacrum of reality. Only in embracing God’s grace can we understand that we are “fully known and fully loved” simply because God is good. His love isn’t conditioned on our performance, our ability, our devotion, knowledge, sacrifices, or anything dependent on ourselves. In Christ alone we stand or fall and are always perfectly loved and eternally accepted.
There is not chess game being played for my soul. Jesus owns the board and grace is the eternal “checkmate” to every would be challenger. No gambit required.