I was an atheist until I was twenty four. I was raised to be an atheist. As a young man, I scolded Christians for their naive stupidity. God’s just a human idea that helps you hide from reality. An invisible friend that lives in the sky and is really bad at money management. I don’t need to go to church to be a good person. Then, when I’d hit my bottom through drugs and alcohol and self-destructive relationships, God revealed Himself to me as a God FOR ME. It was violent, mostly on my part. I didn’t want or need another god. I had drugs and alcohol… and myself. I freaked out. I thought I was suffering a psychotic break. Following the suggestion of a friend’s father, I flew away to Mexico. God was there. I took a train to Portland. God was there. I took a bus to Louisiana. God was there. For ten years I flew, rode, drove, and ran away but everywhere I stopped, there He was. Waiting, like some divine hunter.
I gave up my fight and joined a church. The pastor pointed me to Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. His explanation of the Third Article of the Creed blew all the circuits in my brain. If this is what a Lutheran is, I said, I want to be one! I’ve been in recovery ever since. I’ve learned that not a lot of Lutherans actually think the Small Catechism is all that mind-blowing.
I eventually gave up my fight and got baptized – I’d been accepted to seminary, so I thought it’d be best to show up for the first day of class baptized. When I arrived at seminary I was introduced to classmates who were not that excited by “old” Lutherans or their theology. I was taught that we need to adapt our theology to “our context” otherwise we’d lose members and eventually the churches we serve will shut down.
After a time I gave up my fight and was ordained. I was told that the church’s core message is, “Believe in Christ, belong to a Lutheran church (LC-MS/our in our case – LCA), and behave yourself… and go, teach others likewise.”
And that’s when I said, “But this is what convinced me as an atheist that the church’s message is a lie concocted to escape from reality. The reality I live in every day as the child of an alcoholic. What about the abuse I suffered? Who’s to blame for that? What about my addiction and the terrible, wicked things I did to myself and other people? What about that? What’s God got to say about all that? I’m not saying I did bad things. I’m saying I AM A BAD THING! Now what?
Believe in God, belong to a church, and behave yourself isn’t the Gospel. It’s not what Paul teaches in Romans, that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for all who believe, that faith alone in Christ alone is the fulfillment of the whole law, that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness… that there is no good in my flesh and nothing good that I can do to contribute to the coming kingdom of Christ. What about “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit…”?
What I’ve heard and been taught and been scolded about the past twenty years, by well-meaning, pious, life-long Christians is a message that doesn’t draw people into the church. It’s what causes people to grow up in the church and someday walk out. It’s not about demographics, or peer groups, or “this generation”, or any of the stuff we imagine to explain why people walk out of the church. People who, like me, even though in their heart they want to believe in a good and loving God, they’ve been convinced there’s no such thing. So why waste my time trying at all.
In short, what people that grow up hearing the sermon “Believe, belong, behave” are hearing is, “The Law can gain you rewards and spare you punishment, if you just…” That is, there’s an invisible man in the sky who will give presents to good little boys and girls, but won’t put anything under your Christmas tree if you’re naughty.
The fancy term for this is “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It’s not Christ, not the Gospel, not the Spirit… It’s not anything but the old Adam trying to escape from the God that is FOR ME. To define and use God on his own terms, to get him what he wants, which is to escape having to suffer and die, and enjoy himself while he does it.
But, if you are baptized into Christ’s death, as St. Paul writes, then you will live as Christ lived, suffer as Christ suffered, and die as Christ died… and be raised from the dead as Christ was raised from the dead. Where is God in your suffering? He is bearing it FOR YOU. Where is God when you do what is evil? He is receiving it FOR YOU. Where is God when you say, “I am not doing bad things, I AM A BAD THING!”? He is on the cross carrying all your guilt and shame FOR YOU.
That’s the Gospel. That’s Christ FOR YOU. That’s the truth that blows all the old Adam’s circuits, and creates a new man who lives free before God, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
That’s the power of the Gospel that turns atheists like me into believers.