No matter the bumps, no matter the bruises,
No matter the scars, still the truth is
The cross has made…the cross has made you
…or, has it?
So, before I offer a theological critique of a Christian song, one might ask, “Hey, why offer a theological critique of a Christian song?”
It’s a worthy question. I do not do this very often. I’m no music critic. There’s always the risk, no matter how carefully one executes it, that criticism winds up being harmful or offensive. Before penning such a criticism, one ought to have good reasons. The following list includes some merely circumstantial points that narrate how this came up on my radar along with what I think are some substantive reasons why a post like this might prove to be worth the risks.
- MercyMe is a local group. They originated out of Greenville, TX, which is just up the road. Because they are a local group, I’ve been listening to their work for a long time. They’re automatically on my radar.
- MercyMe is more than a local group. They’ve succeeded internationally. What they write and sing has impact and is worthy of being treated seriously.
- “Flawless” is a successful, catchy, memorable song. Believe it or not, I do not hand over my mind to the task of careful theological analysis of just every song I hear on the radio, but “Flawless” caught my attention and had me singing along in the shower. Ultimately, my concerns about the lyrics arose not as I was listening to Bart Millard singing the words but as I was listening to Bart Barber singing them. MercyMe had ME singing, and I need to think about what I’m singing, right?
- “Flawless” is bigger than MercyMe. The song taps into and exemplifies something about American Christianity at this particular moment that is, in my estimation, both occasionally helpful and subtly dangerous.
- I write as someone who preaches multiple times every week and who humbly knows how often in trying to say just the right thing I miss it just a bit.
- I write as someone who knows how often missing just the right thing by just a little bit leads to conversations that teach me something important about the faith.
- “Flawless” is itself a critique, according to its lyricist. It is a kindhearted and gracious critique from a friend, but according to the video posted further down in this article, it is a critique of what is purported to have been the inadvertent teaching of Highland Terrace Baptist Church (a sister church down the highway from us), and presumably of many of her sister churches. A critique and correction can hardly be off-limits to critique and correction, right?
So, with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives me to see the right, I embark…
The Biblical Critique of “Flawless”
Exegesis before theology. Tattoo these words on your souls, my friends.
There are a number of words employed in the New Testament that mean something along the lines of “flawless.” None of them are ever employed in the New Testament to say anything like what the lyrics of “Flawless” say.
|1 Corinthians 1:8||
“…who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Most of the “flawless” language in the New Testament is eschatological in nature. Flawlessness is a future promise made to believers, not a present possession. In this passage, it is linked to (a) our “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (b) His active sustaining/confirming action to keep us through to that time, and (c) “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This passage gives us a tidy three-act synopsis. Past: We were alienated, hostile in mind, and engaged in evil deeds. Present: We are reconciled by Christ’s death (The cross has made…the cross has made you RECONCILED! AMEN!). Future: We will be presented blameless “if you indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast.”
Now, I’m no Arminian. I don’t think there’s contingency bundled up in that “if.” But I do think there’s an undeniable “not yet” in it to balance out the obvious “already” features of this passage. I was formerly alienated. I am already reconciled. I am not yet “above reproach.”
|1 Timothy 3:10||
Here being “blameless” (“above reproach”) is given as a qualification for service as a deacon. This is noteworthy, because that which the cross does at the moment of conversion in a punctiliar fashion is that which we can assume to be true of all genuine believers. The idea of being “blameless” or flawless is given here to us as a means of differentiating some believers (those qualified for deacon service) from others (those not qualified for deacon service).
Although there is a palpable discomfort in the milieu of contemporary American Christianity with the idea of deeming any believer unworthy of anything, it is difficult to escape the implication of these passages that there are people qualified for office and people disqualified. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine why these particular texts would be in the New Testament at all if this sort of differentiation were not intended for the churches.
Thus, contrary to being something that every believer already possesses by virtue of the cross, biblically speaking, flawlessness is something Christians are to pursue, the closer pursuit of which marks those who ought to be considered for potential service as deacons.
This passage applies the same concept to qualifications for elders/overseers as 1 Timothy 3:10 has applied to deacons. The same sentiments apply.
As the TDNT reminds us, amomos “is used of the perfect moral and religious piety of Christians to which believers are obligated by membership of the holy community of the last time…. The point is always that Christians must manifest this blamelessness before the judgment of God and of Christ. The orientation is thus religious and eschatological.” Ephesians 1:3-14 contains a number of past milestones, present accomplishments, and future promises. The temporal context bounces around from “before the foundation of the world” (v4) to “until we acquire possession of [our inheritance]” (v14) and items in-between.
Kittel ascribes our blamelessness to the end times for good reason: The purpose clause in which it appears suggests an eschatological interpretation, and the use of the word in its other contexts points us toward eschatological blamelessness as a consistent feature of Pauline theology.
Here our blamelessness is tied to the presentation of the Bride of Christ and the Marriage of the Lamb in Revelation 19:6-9.
Blameless is something that we can accomplish by, in part, doing all things without grumbling or disputing. It is not something that all believers automatically possess; rather, it is something toward which believers strive by means of their conduct and attitudes.
See note on this passage above.
God, by His power, is able to keep us from stumbling and, having done so, to present us in the end as blameless. Here again blamelessness occurs in a purpose statement demonstrating a goal accomplished by the power of God in the eschaton.
The 144,000 are, in the eschaton, declared fully honest and blameless.
|1 Timothy 3:2||
The overseer must be “above reproach.” See comments above about qualifications for biblical offices.
|1 Timothy 5:7||
The same qualification is applied to the office of widow.
|1 Timothy 6:14||
In a personal charge to Timothy, the Apostle Paul commands him to keep himself blameless “until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Being able to discern the will of God, which is “perfect,” requires transformation through the renewing of one’s mind. This is not presented as something already accomplished for the believer through the cross.
|1 Corinthians 13:10||
The time “when the perfect comes” is clearly an anticipated future event.
That time when “we all attain to…mature (perfect) manhood” is an anticipated future event, not something already realized.
Some of us are “mature (perfect)”, but some of us are not. The biblical theme of maturity is significantly important and is at jeopardy here. If there is an idea of Christian maturity toward which believers must strive, then there is something yet undiscovered—something yet undone—toward which believers ought to move even after the work of conversion is complete.
The list of occurrences of teleios and its cognates goes on for quite some time. I have learned that when I get tired of typing, the average reader is already tired of reading, so I will leave you for the further word study on your own.
Let us summarize the biblical data in this way: blamelessness, flawlessness, maturity, and perfection, insofar as they refer to humans other than Christ, appear in the New Testament as goals for Christian living and as promises pertaining to the Christian Hope in the End Times. This is true without exception. These concepts of blamelessness, flawlessness, maturity, and perfection do not appear in sentences alongside the cross or the atonement. Rather, they appear in sentences alongside admonitions related to Christian behavior and alongside promises about the second coming of Christ.
“God WILL MAKE you flawless.” That’s a lot closer to the language of the Bible.
There’s Worth in What You Do
Bart Millard has given us some insight into the events that inspired the lyrics. He’s trying to correct a perceived legalism in contemporary American Christianity and to overcome an apparent fatigue that he was experiencing as a believer.
There is indeed such a thing as legalism. It has indeed reared its ugly head in the context of American Christianity from time to time. It is indeed still with us to this day. Efforts to combat it are indeed a service to us all.
But the answer to legalism is not to say about ourselves what the New Testament never says about us: that it is the effect of Christ’s work on the cross that we are already flawless. Furthermore, it is not legalism to find worth in what we do. There is worth in what we do. It won’t save us, but there is worth in what we do.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 speaks about worth in what we do, if we are doing worthy things. Not everything that we do is equally worthy. It is not legalistic to find value in conscientious Christian living. Certainly God does so.
Philippians 4:18 finds worth in what we do. The offering given by the Philippians church and sent through Epaphroditus constituted “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”
Revelation 14:13 finds worth in what we do. The dead who die in the Lord have the promise that, having rested from their labors, “their deeds follow them.”
Frankly, it would be a despondent, nihilistic worldview to own if we really believed that there was no worth in what we do. Enough worth to offset the damage done by our sin? Nowhere near that! Will anyone earn his or her way into Heaven? Not in a thousand millennia. But there’s nothing in the Bible even to suggest that the labors and sufferings of Christian believers and the sometimes-fatiguing process of Christian discipleship are worthless. What you do matters!
Not Quite Antinomianism
In earlier days I’ve spoken about incipient antinomianism in contemporary American Christianity. I’m no longer entirely comfortable with that terminology. What our culture (Christian and secular alike) is becoming no less legalistic than that which it once was, the fact notwithstanding that culture is engaged in a sort of changing-of-the-guard with regard to which sins feature prominently in its legalism. Previous generations had to put boys and girls into separate swimming pools. Future generations have to buy free-trade coffee and electric cars.
If not antinomianism, though, I do discern in some quarters of Christianity at present what I’ll call an anti-striving sentiment. There’s an ongoing assumption that whatever is difficult, fatiguing, contrary to my inclinations or feelings, likely to confront me with occasional despair, contributory toward an ongoing sense of guilt, or confrontational toward my present self-esteem must be wrong. Only Twenty-First-Century America could produce something akin to this sentiment. I think this is perhaps a feature of the “therapeutic” part of “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Whatever might cause a contemporary therapist to wrinkle his brow in concern for our emotional health is to be suspect on those grounds.
“The cross was enough” is a sentiment I certainly don’t want to attack. We do have reason to question, however, whether, “it’s OK” (I’m OK. You’re OK) is the conclusion that scripture asks us to draw from Christ’s atonement—whether a Thomas Harris book title actually summarizes the effect of the gospel.
The New Testament contains a lot of material AFTER the cross. The preponderance of it is a call to striving. We’re promised that it will be difficult. We’re promised that it will fatigue us. We’re promised that it will require the transformation and renewal of our inclinations and feelings. Everyone who undertook it in the New Testament encountered despair, and it was in their despair that they discovered a hope greater than their despair. Anti-striving Christianity robs us of so much that is beautiful (albeit counter-intuitive) about the faith once delivered to the saints.
What The Cross Has Done For Us
Because of the cross (to crib lines from Augustine) we find ourselves newly posse non peccare (able not to sin). The cross has not yet made us non posse peccare (not able to sin). It has not made us flawless, but it has put flawlessness on the menu for us and in our inheritance. Striving toward flawlessness isn’t legalism; it’s the thing you are able to do by grace that was not even a possibility for you apart from the cross. To be able to strive toward flawlessness is a blessing and a gift. It is also arguable the unifying theme of the epistles and the calling of every Christian.
If you are fatigued and despondent and if “Flawless” gives you encouragement to soldier on, then I salute you. If you found in the song a beautiful reminder that you have been JUSTIFIED and FORGIVEN by the cross without having really delved that deeply into the implications of using a word like “flawless,” then I celebrate together with you our mutual joy over the way that we have been freed from the Law.
If, however, you have found in “Flawless” encouragement not to work too hard on this whole Christian Living thing, then get your lazy butt up off the couch and start striving toward flawlessness.