On 'The Good Place', Justification By Faith, And Too Much Sin - A Sermon For Lent 2
Doug Forcett is a minor character in the TV series The Good Place - a comedy which explores ethical issues and dilemmas. The premise for the series is that its four key characters wake up to be told that they’ve died and that they are now in is the ‘good place’. They’re in heaven – the good place – as opposed to hell – the bad place. They’re told that they’ve got into the good place through a points system. For every good act with good consequences each person gains points. And for every bad act with bad consequences each person loses points. The net score over the course of the whole of someone’s life determines their eternal destiny.
Doug Forcett is an almost mythical figure in afterlife circles. His picture is in offices and he is held up as the ‘blueprint’ for leading a good life. In one episode, two characters visit Doug to understand more about what it means to lead a perfectly good life. Doug tells them that he took some magic mushrooms in 1972 and had a vision of the points system and how to get into the good place. He decided to lead a life which would guarantee him enough points. He only eats home grown lentils and radishes, and only drinks water recycled and filtered from his compostable toilet. But all is not quite right. Doug’s desire to make everyone happy means that others exploit him. He leads a life of solitude and extreme, masochistic self-sacrifice. He is terrified of doing anything that will prevent him from getting points. As he says, ‘what if I relax and do something that loses me just enough points to keep me out of the Good Place. I’ve got to make every moment count’.
I’m now going to try to explain the critical theological idea at the centre of the passage from Romans we’ve heard today. Early Christians were made up of two groups of people. One was from within the Jewish community. They considered their belief in Jesus to be consistent with their Jewish faith. The other group were gentiles – non-Jewish people following the way of Christ. The Jewish group had always been loyal to Jewish law and continued to do be so. They believed that following law made them righteous. It put them in a ‘right relationship’ with God. Rather like the points system in The Good Place, obeying the law bought them credits for this relationship. But the gentiles had never had the law as they had never been part of the Jewish community. This raised some really difficult questions. Did following the law give the Jewish Christians an advantage? If it didn’t give them an advantage, then what was the point of the law? Should non-Jewish Christians follow the law?
Paul’s clever reply was to look to Abraham, the one to whom God made the promise that he would be the father of a great nation – as we heard in our reading from Genesis. Paul points out that Abram, as he was then, was in a right relationship with God. But Abram did not have the law. It didn’t exist. All Abraham had was his faith in God and his trust in God’s promise to him. Paul argues that with Jesus’ arrival on the scene, everyone should return to the precedent set right at the beginning with Abraham. The law – the points system – had served its purpose, but now its time had passed. Being in right relationship with God is simply about having faith in Jesus. It’s no longer about accruing points by obeying the law. We are made righteous, we are justified, we are brought into right relationship with God, through our faith and nothing else.
There is much of Paul’s teaching of justification through faith that is brilliant. Points don’t matter. God’s love and forgiveness are not earned over a lifetime. We don’t need to be like Doug Forcett in The Good Place – obsessed with doing all we can to earn points and terrified of what might happen if we lose them. Such an approach is life-limiting. It constrains us. It is our turning to God, to Christ, to faith which counts. Think of the parable of the Prodigal Son and the welcome he receives. It is in the simple act of turning to God that we find God’s love. One of the points of The Good Place is that human beings have a great capacity to change and it is here that their true value can be found. It is our turning around that matters.
This theology has been incredibly influential, especially in more protestant circle. Martin Luther wrote and taught about sola fide – only faith. This is the idea that believers are forgiven their wrongdoings against God’s will, on the basis of their faith and their faith only. Doing good works might be evidence of faith, but such acts do not earn points for salvation for Christians. This teaching reinforced the idea that the essential nature of humankind is that it is broken, fallen, and sinful. It is only through faith in Christ – the one who died on our behalf – that we can be released from this burden. Some people talk about the influence of God’s grace here. This is the idea that grace is the love and mercy of God which God freely, willingly gives to us, even though our sinful state means we are undeserving. It is only through God’s intervention in the world that we are saved. Without this intervention, without the crucified Jesus, we are nothing.
But this theology when taken to its extremes has also caused no end of problems. It often results in a deep simplification of Christian faith which reduces belief to an absurdly basic equation: we believe in Jesus = we are saved = we are going to heaven (whatever that might be). We’ve all seen happy, shiny, ‘saved’ Christians whose faith, when challenged, is little more than superficial. It has led to the deeply problematic teaching that Jesus somehow takes our place on the cross, bearing the punishment for our sins on our behalf. A God who would do such a thing is surely the cruellest of Gods. It reinforces the entirely negative belief that human beings are nothing more than sinful beings, who cannot even influence this position for themselves without God’s intervention. This is why I can’t abide the Book of Common Prayer as it never allows us to let go of sin. It pushes God to something that is totally beyond us, totally outside us. Taken to these extremes, we become pawns, embroiled in a bizarre divine game totally beyond our control. Belief in such theology risks us becoming the unthinking, zombie Christians of which I warned last week. It can be as controlling, as limiting as the points system we also want to avoid.
I talked last week about the phrase in our Eucharistic Prayer for Lent about learning to be God’s people once again. In doing so, we should have the courage to steer ourselves away from these negative theologies. By this I mean ways of looking at God which limit us, which reduce us, which belittle us, which make us doubt who we are. Be that point-scoring or overemphasis on sinfulness. These have caused unfathomable damage. Faith should always be a positive, life-affirming experience. St Paul is right. Our act of turning to God is enough in itself to restore our relationship with God. We should turn to God confident in who we are. Yes, self-aware of our shortcomings, but confident in the wholeness of the person God has created, and confident in the assurance that God will accept us and love us as we are. And knowing we are accepted and loved, God can work change in us and through us to bring transformation to the world. Part of learning to be God’s people once again is to learn to be ourselves.