At the heart of our culture and our national church is a debate about what people most need for a fulfilled and healthy life. Nationally, mental health issues, particularly among young people, seem to be increasing each year—while the rhetoric that is used to address them is, “Be who you are!” It is no surprise that so many struggle with that, when experience tells you that you are not really that significant, only a small cog in a massive impersonal irresistible machine. Our culture only offers you a form of secular ‘salvation’ by finding celebrity, by finding your significance in a fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying quest for five minutes of fame. In the Church, there is a similar parallel narrative—the so-called gospel of “inclusion”—which takes a deep truth, that ‘God loves you whoever you are’ and twists it to the idea that ‘God affirms you as you are’ - as though faith is just an affirmative therapy—a way to boost your self-esteem and legitimise your personal choices, whatever they are, but you don’t need to change!
Jesus’ good news is not focused on affirming us in our fallenness, but transforming us. It is a gospel of repentance and faith (Mark 1:15), of the turning around of life from the ways that lead to self-harm (because sin ultimately does that!) and eternal judgement, and instead finding the narrow path that leads to life in its fullness (Mat.7:13-14). As Paul says, we are to be ‘…transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2), and “...transformed into his (Jesus’) image with ever-increasing glory which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor.3:18). Jesus’ way for our lives is not a self-affirming introspection that can lead so many into depression, but a renewed vision of our true glory, to which we are working and which will be realised in his presence when we see him face to face. It is our ongoing transformation, not our ‘affirmation’, that is the good news! As John Newton put it, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am!” (echoing 1 Cor.15:10).
That used to be what churches were known for – changing lives, whether through personal commitment, social improvement or missional endeavour – transforming life according to the likeness of Christ. The ‘affirmation’ culture has left us as an increasingly less popular lifestyle choice, desperate to entertain our way back into people affections. But our hope is not going to be in new techniques, courses, or clever management; it is in the gospel that calls us from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from a passive lifestyle religion to the active transformation of lives by the Spirit. It is time not just to bring good news, but to be good news to our church and culture – because truly knowing Jesus will gloriously change everything! So let’s not be content for mere conversation without transformation (whether in the politics of the church or the responsibilities of the parish), but ensure our studies transform minds, our serving changes lives and our message is Jesus!
Rob Munro is Rector of Cheadle Parish Church