Christianity was never meant to affirm what we naturally are, but rescue us from our sinful nature, says Matthew Roberts. If Church of England bishops change course on same-sex relationships, they’ll be turning their back on Christ’s redemptive power, he says
We held our church nativity service last Sunday, which meant a church full of people heartily singing ‘Hark! The herald angels sing!’
Charles Wesley, who wrote the carol in 1739, left us in no doubt over what the angels are singing about: “Peace on earth and mercy mild / God and sinners reconciled” says the first verse. And later: “Mild he lays his glory by / Born that man no more may die / Born to raise the sons of earth /Born to give them second birth”.
Here, Wesley taps into a rich vein of Christian joy. The birth of Jesus is worth celebrating because he came to bring us all redemption.
Saved from sin
Redemption is what Christianity is all about. God’s son came into the world to save us from what we are, and to make us into what we are not. He came to take sinners – people who naturally want to do what is wrong, and suffer all the awful consequences of that – and forgive them. In doing so, we are made new, raised from death to life. We are transformed so deeply that it is compared (by Wesley and of course, Jesus in John 3:3) to a “second birth”.
Why would anyone come to a church that tells people Christ has nothing to offer them, because they’re fine just as they are?
Wesley’s oft-overlooked fourth verse sums this up with glorious clarity: “Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface / Stamp thine image in its place / O! to all thyself impart / Formed in each believing heart”.
Our natural selves - for all of us - deserved nothing but condemnation from God but, instead, he sent his son into the world to die and rise again for us - and so to forgive us, take away the corrupted desires of our hearts (“Adam’s likeness”) and, in their place, transform us to reflect the pure and holy character of God himself.
This is the glory of Christmas. It is this which made the angels – and Christians ever since – want to sing.
And it is this which the Church of England bishops who are met this week as part of the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ process, are currently in danger of abandoning, as they discuss what to recommend at the next General Synod (February 2023) regarding same-sex relationships.
Editing the ethics?
The CofE’s wrangling over gay marriage has been presented by the revisionists – including a slew of bishops – as if it is a question of merely editing one branch of Christian ethics. That is entirely false.
What is at stake here is nothing less than redemption. Will the CofE continue to hold to the fundamental redemptive structure of the Christian gospel, or will it drop it in favour of something else?
Why is this at stake? Because the argument brought forward for redefining marriage, against the clear and consistent scriptural teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman (from Genesis 2:18-25; Matthew 19:4-6; Ephesians 5:22-33, to name the three most obvious), and that all sexual activity outside of marriage is sinful (e.g Leviticus 18; Romans 1:18-32; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8) , is that homosexual desires are ‘natural’. And being natural, the argument goes, they must be affirmed.
But is the fact that I ‘naturally’ want to do something a reason for saying that it is good to do it? For Christians, it cannot be.
Christianity has always proclaimed that what we are, naturally, is not what we should be. God created us good, but we have been deeply spoiled by sin. Human nature, intended by God as a display (or image) of his glory, has been corrupted. As a result, in many different areas of our lives, what we want is not what we should want. We are proud, greedy, cruel, manipulative, disobedient and untruthful. And this extends to our sexual desires as well, which are not ‘naturally’ what they should be in any of us; they are deeply corrupted, in heterosexual and homosexual ways, and more besides. That is “Adam’s likeness”. For that reason, the argument that because desires are ‘natural’, they must necessarily be good, would justify any kind of wickedness. This is not of course what many revisionists intend, but it is an inevitable consequence.
We are in all sorts of ways - sexual and non sexual - in desperate need of God’s forgiveness and transforming grace. The good news is that Christ died to save sinners. And so through faith, repentance, self-discipline, careful obedience to the scriptures and the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, that Adam’s likeness can be “effaced” and a renewed and repaired image of God formed in its place.
But the CofE revisionists want the Church to drop all this. Instead, they want a new doctrine which assumes that we do not need to change after all. What we naturally are is, in fact, good. Adam’s likeness can stay just as it is; God is perfectly imaged in us already. The sons of earth do not need raising, and there is no need for God and sinners to be reconciled.
Whatever the CofE decides, it will not affect what Christianity truly is. No denomination has the power to do that. But it would mean our established Church had downgraded its understanding of Christianity - from a world-changing message of redemption for people lost to the power of sin, to a vague affirmation of whatever we already are being somehow good enough.
Christ came to undo us, and to remake us. Abandon that, and Christianity is just an empty husk
But if that were so, what on earth would Christians – or, for that matter, angels – have to really sing about? The coming of Christ would be no more than a mildly heart-warming story of general approval for all. Why would anyone celebrate a message like that? Why would anyone come to a church which tells people that Christ has precisely nothing to offer them, because they’re fine just as they are?
Offended by grace
Of course redemption is an offensive doctrine; it tells people that they are not what they should be, that they live in the domain of darkness and their hearts and lives are not right before God.
CofE revisionists don’t like the implications of that for sexuality, but the problem is worse than they think: Christ says this not just to gay people, but to all people. His message is for the entire world.
But that is why the gospel is such good news. “For Christ came, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). He came to undo us, and to remake us. He came that we might die to self and live for God. He came to redeem us. Abandon that, and the Christianity you’re left with is just an empty husk.
Redemption is the oxygen which has filled the lungs, and the fire which has driven the tongues, of Christian people throughout the ages. Those watching from outside the CofE, like me, hope and pray that our national Church does not choose to walk away from it.