A Broken Hallelujah is Still a Hallelujah
Have you ever stopped and marveled at how the Bible, including God’s chosen family, is filled to the brim with screw-ups and sufferers?
This is my favorite thing about the Bible. All the screw-ups and sufferers that are in there. It gives me hope, because if there is saving grace for bottom-dwellers like them, then there must also be saving grace for bottom-dwellers like me.
The unfiltered stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rahab, David, Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene, and others might make the middle class in spirit person’s skin crawl. Even though they are all considered heroes of the faith in the Bible and throughout the centuries, these “heroes” have also been horrific parents to their children, loveless toward their siblings, promiscuous in their bedrooms, liars and deceivers, adulterers and murderers, xenophobes and racists, blasphemous cowards and merciless aggressors. For further details, just pick up a Bible and start reading.
It is worth asking plainly why God chooses to do some of his best work through such bad, unsavory characters. Why wouldn’t God choose to work through good people instead? Why wouldn’t God use better ingredients to accomplish his purposes among women and men?
The simple answer is that there are no such good people, and there are no better ingredients. As the Scripture boldly states, there is no one who is righteous, not even one. All people, even the “best” people, are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. Even the “best” people were conceived with a sin nature. Even our “best” deeds are as filthy rags in comparison to the perfect goodness, beauty, and holiness of God.
If God is going to do anything good through human beings, he will have to do so in spite of our compromised ethics, mixed motives, and hypocritical realities.
I have often heard people say that they don’t want to become Christians because Christians are hypocrites. They are right in their assessment. In fact, it is impossible to be a Christian and not be a hypocrite, if by hypocrite we mean someone who lives inconsistently with who they claim to be and what they claim to believe.
However, our hypocrisy does not negate our Christian faith. Instead, our hypocrisy establishes it. Jesus came not for the righteous but for the unrighteous, not for the sinless but for sinners. There is no way to be a Christian without owning these realities about ourselves. This is why, when people stand before the congregation to become members of our church, the first question they must answer publicly is, “Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving his displeasure, and without hope save in his sovereign mercy?” Only those who answer “yes” to this question can become church members.
The second question our church members must affirm is, “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon him alone for salvation as he is offered in the Gospel?”
Only those who answer “yes” to both questions understand what it means to be a Christian. We are not saintly people who have earned our place. Rather, we are sinful people who have been saved by grace. We are not God’s choice people. Rather, we are God’s chosen people.
If God only worked with people who are not hypocrites, he would have no one to work with besides Jesus. The question is not whether Christians are hypocrites, because we all most certainly are. Rather, the question is whether we are self-aware and humble in our hypocrisy, and rightly saddened by it. God opposes the hypocritical proud, but he gives grace to the hypocritical humble. To self-congratulating moralists who pray, “Thank you, my God, that I am not like other men,” he answers with a verdict of judgment. To self-aware sinners who pray, “Have mercy on me, the sinner,” he answers with a verdict of justifying grace.
I believe that there will be three surprises for all of us when we get to heaven. First, we will be surprised to discover that some who were known in this world as “good people” are not there. Second, we will be surprised that others who were known as “bad people” are there. And, when we’ve been given the chance to see Jesus face to face in his jaw-dropping glory, we will be surprised that we are there.
Based on what the Bible teaches about salvation—namely, that it is by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone—I believe with all my heart that heaven will be populated with many people whom we knew as saints. These are the people who, in this life, became visibly and increasingly Christ-like as faithful bearers of the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. These are also the people who, though being visibly virtuous and holy and good in this life, did not put their trust in these things but rather in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as their only hope in life and in death.
In heaven, there will also be people who were not as visibly virtuous and holy and good in this life, but who nonetheless were received into God’s kingdom on the same basis as those who were: by grace, through faith, in Christ. Though these words from Brennan Manning, also a recovering alcoholic priest, will sound scandalous to some, they are nonetheless true:
“Among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and Lamb, dressed in white robes … I shall see the prostitute who tearfully told me she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse … the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman [ahem…] addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street … There they are. There we are—the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.”
A broken hallelujah is still a hallelujah.
In fact, in the ears of God, it is a sweet sound.
Through Jesus, the God who is holy, who lives in unapproachable light, and whose eyes are too pure to look upon evil welcomes sinners and eats with them, even as he tends gently to their weary cries for mercy.
And as he welcomes us, he also empowers us to participate in his work.
How amazing is that?
This is an adapted excerpt from Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen: How God Redeems Regret, Hurt, and Fear in the Making of Better Humans by Scott Sauls. Scott is senior pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee and author of several books.