Why does being “Christian” in America make so little difference in so many people’s lives, when the kingdom movement revealed in the New Testament revolutionized people’s lives? This drastic difference is hardly surprising when you consider that the gospel that people are often given today is little more than a contract of acquittal that is signed by praying the sinner’s prayer or some such thing. Nor is it surprising that this powerless version of the gospel absorbs rather than confronts the culture of the people who sign this contract. Within this gospel, people give their mental assent to certain beliefs and are thereby ushered into a “kingdom” that looks almost identical to the earthly kingdom they were supposed to be called out of. They can keep all their cultural assumptions, and, apart from avoiding certain behaviors that are singled out as the deal-breaker sins, their lives can continue on just as before.
All who are invested in the kingdom Jesus inaugurated in this world must find all of this deeply disturbing. What is even more disturbing, however, is that this contract Christianity seems to function for many like an immunization shot. When a person is immunized against the flu, they receive just enough of the flu virus to trick their body into acting as if they had the real thing so that they build up a resistance to the real thing. So too, there is just enough truth in this certainty-seeking, contractual, belief-oriented, individualistic version of Christianity to trick people into thinking they have the real thing. They thus aren’t open to, or hungry for, true faith because they assume they already have it when they believe.
It’s as if they are a husband or wife who has security in their marital pledge rather than in the quality of the relationship he or she pledged to have. Many people today resist the need to cultivate an actual marriage-like relationship with Christ because they find their security in their past pledge. They prayed “the sinners prayer,” got baptized, affirmed the “doctrines essential to salvation,” or did whatever their church requires. So long as they retain a sufficiently strong faith—that is, a faith that is sufficiently free of doubt—they believe these things permanently guarantee they’re okay with God. When they did these things, they were told, the Judge accepted the sacrifice of his Son as the payment for their crimes, they were acquitted, and that is the end of the matter.
This perspective of the gospel preserves just enough of the kingdom exterior to pass for the real thing. But what is easily missed when matters are construed this way is that the kingdom is all about cultivating an actual life-giving relationship with God, and this can only be done moment by moment, for life can only be lived, and relationships can only be cultivated, in the present. Surface resemblances notwithstanding, the legal paradigm easily misses the life flowing out of the relationship with the King that defines the kingdom of God.
—Adapted from Benefit of the Doubt, pages 141-142.